1 Talking about past events and situations:

We use the past simple:

  • when we are talking about an event that happened at a particular time in the past

We arrived home before dark
The film started at seven thirty.

  • when we are talking about something that continued for some time in the past

Everybody worked hard through the winter.
We stayed with our friends in London.

When we are talking about something that happened several times in the past we use

  • the past simple:

Most evenings we stayed at home and watched DVDs.
Sometimes they went out for a meal.

  • … or used to

Most evenings we used to stay at home and watch DVDs.
We used to go for a swim every morning.

  • ... or would

Most evenings he would take the dog for a walk.
They would often visit friends in Europe.

WARNING: We do not normally use would with stative verbs.

We use the past continuous:

  • when we are talking about something which happened before and after a given time in the past

It was just after ten. I was watching the news on TV.
At half-time we were losing 1-0.

  • when we are talking about something happening before and after another action in the past:

He broke his leg when he was playing rugby.
She saw Jim as he was driving away.

2 The past in the past

When we are looking back from a point in the past to something earlier in the past we use the past perfect:

Helen suddenly remembered she had left her keys in the car.
When we had done all our shopping we caught the bus home.
They wanted to buy a new computer, but they hadn’t saved enough money.
They would have bought a new computer if they had saved enough money.

3 The past and the present:

We use the present perfect:

  • when we are talking about the effects in the present of something that happened in the past:

I can’t open the door. I’ve left my keys in the car.
Jenny has found a new job. She works in a supermarket now.

  • When we are talking about something that started in the past and still goes on:

We have lived here since 2007. (and we still live here)
I have been working at the university for over ten years.

4 The future in the past

When we talk about the future from a time in the past we use:

  • would as the past tense of will

He thought he would buy one the next day.
Everyone was excited. The party would be fun.

  • was/were going to

John was going to drive and Mary was going to follow on her bicycle.
It was Friday. We were going to set off the next day.

  • the past continuous:

It was September. Mary was starting school the next week.
We were very busy. The shop was opening in two weeks' time.

 

 

Exercise

Section: 

Comments

Please tell me why I should use, (Q.No. 6) -- 'We had never seen anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.' instead of using -- 'We never saw anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.'

Hello learning,

The sentence describes a state which was true in the past and continued up to another point in the past, when it stopped being true. For this we use the past perfect and the past simple.

You would use the past simple if the time described was finished. In other words, you would use the past simple if (a) the situation did not change and (b) the period of time (the life) was complete. Thus we would use this to talk in a historical sense about someone who is no longer alive:

He never saw anything so extraordinary in his life. [he is no longer alive]

 

If the person is still alive, we use a present perfect to show an unfinished time up to the moment of speaking:

I've never seen anything so extraordinary in my life. [I am still alive]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,
Sir I am a student and I do get when people talk about past events but they use present tense. For example, I watched this video where I saw person was talking about his past experience with someone and he was talking like "I am throwing this party, I throw a lot parties for kids. So this kid walks in". I mean why? When one is talking about any past event he/she should use only past tense. Please help.
Thank you in advance

Hello SahilK,

The present tense is used in informal speech when we are trying to make an anecdote or a joke more lively and more immediate. Your example is a good one for this: the speaker is clearly telling a personal anecdote (which might be funny or surprising) to an audience.

We also use present forms in this way when we are summarising the plot of a film or book.

You can read more about this use of present forms on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,
I'm teaching students about how 'when' can be used to talk about two actions that happened in a sequence. The course book has clearly laid out two different structures, 'When+past perfect+past simple' and 'When+past simple+past simple', with preciously little explanation. As a teacher, I had to clarify. So, I explained that the past simple is used for the first action when the second action happens as a reaction to the first one, and also when the second action starts well before the first action is over. Here the confusion is rather on what sort of action can be taken as reaction and what we do (use past simple or past perfect for the first action) when the second action happens as reaction (I'm not pretty sure whether some actions in particular examples can be called reaction at all, though) with still a perceivable time gap between the first and the second actions.
Thanks.

Hi Bki,

The use of the past perfect and past simple together is not dependent on using 'when'.

When two actions occur in the past we use the past simple for both actions unless

(a) one action is before the other

and

(b) there is some kind of connection (causal, for example) between them

and

(c) we think it is important or helpful to make this clear.

 

For example:

I saw him before I went to the meeting.

I had seen him before I went the meeting.

The first sentence simply tells us about two events and does not suggest any connection. The second sentence tells us that in some way (which will presumably be explained by the context) the first event (seeing him) has an effect on the second. Perhaps seeing him changed my strategy for the meeting in some way. Or perhaps it was part of my strategy to prepare him for the meeting before it started.

 

You can read more about the relationship between the past perfect and past simple on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi :)
What tense(s) should be used with "for the last ... years"?
Thanks.

Hello beckysyto,

The present perfect simple or continuous are the tenses that make the most sense because this use of 'last' refers to a time period that extends into the time of speaking. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other tense that would work here, though perhaps I'm just not thinking of one.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

(1) I taught in a drama school for the last 5 years.
Does the use of past simple mean that in the last 5 years I taught in a drama school but now I do not?
(2) I have taught in a drama school for the last 5 years.
Does it mean I started teaching in a drama school 5 years ago and the action has continued up to now?

Hello beckysyto,

Yes, that's correct. The first sentence isn't exactly wrong, but I personally would avoid using 'the last five years' with a past simple verb. I'd probably specify the dates (e.g. from 2012 until last month) instead.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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