There are two tenses in English – past and present.

The past tense in English is used:

  • to talk about the past
  • to talk about hypotheses – things that are imagined rather than true.
  • for politeness.

There are four past tense forms in English:

Tense Form
Past simple: I worked
Past continuous: I was working
Past perfect: I had worked
Past perfect continuous: I had been working

We use these forms:

  • to talk about the past:

He worked at McDonald’s. He had worked there since July..
He was working at McDonald’s. He had been working since July.

  • to refer to the present or future in conditions:

He could get a new job if he really tried.
If Jack was playing they would probably win.

and hypotheses:

It might be dangerous. Suppose they got lost.
I would always help someone who really needed help.

and wishes:

I wish it wasn’t so cold.

  • In conditions, hypotheses and wishes, if we want to talk about the past, we always use the past perfect:

I would have helped him if he had asked.
It was very dangerous, What if you had got lost?
I wish I hadn’t spent so much money last month.

 

  • We can use the past forms to talk about the present in a few polite expressions:

Excuse me, I was wondering if this was the train for York.
I just hoped you would be able to help me.

Exercise

Comments

“I was wondering if I might take Danny into town?”
Sir, in this sentence why used 'was' in spite of being it present tense? I think this is very formal way to ask someone but how can I ask it informal way?
[If the way of my asking question is not right please correction it]

Hi amit_ck,

We often use the past tense to speak about the present when making requests. This makes the request less direct and therefore more polite. It is used especially in formal contexts, but is also sometimes used in more informal situations. There is a lengthier explanation of this in the Changing tenses and verb forms of this page on politeness if you'd like to learn more.

A more informal version would be something like 'Can you take Danny into town?'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Could you please help me?
When he (reached - had reached) 80, he died.
I think both of them are correct, what do you think?
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed,

This really depends on the context in which the sentnece is used. It's possible to think of a context when the past perfect would be used, but I think the past simple is much more likely as the sentence is describing a sequence of events which are not connected in any way.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

I had some questions on using past tense for politeness.
I wanted to send invitation to another party, is it correct or natural if I write "We would send you the invitation later."?

The second one is for greeting in email. I often start with "hope you are doing well", but would it be the same if I write "hoped you were doing well"?

Thank you for your comment.

Ethan

Hello Ethan,

This use of the past tense for politeness is typically used with specific expressions and verbs for making a request.

'I hope you are doing well' is not a request and so it is actually just fine (and polite) the way it is -- there is no need to use the past tense here. The past tense in the example above ('I just hoped you would be able to help me') is a request for someone to help you, whereas yours is wishing someone well. Does that make sense?

I'm afraid I don't understand your invitation well enough to be able to offer any advice. If you'd like me to help you with that, could you please explain the situation a bit more?

Finally, I just wanted to mention that the Cambridge Dictionary pages on Politeness and Requests have numerous examples that you might find useful.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Sir,
I didn't meet them till a year ago from the time they got married. I mean it was one year ago when I last met them from the time they got married.

Hello SonuKumar,

I think the best ways to express what you are trying to say would be as follows:

The last time I met then was a year after their marriage.

 

You could construct a sentence with since but it would be rather unnatural and hard to follow, so I don't think we would normally use this:

I haven't met them since their first anniversary.

I haven't met them since a year after their marriage.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Sir, I didn't meat them till yesterday or a year ago from the time they got married is it a right use of from ?
We don't use 'Since' until we're talking about a point in the past to the moment of speaking right ?

I don't have to face it as much as you do or you have to.
which is right 'you do or you have to' in the sentence above ?

Hi SonuKumar,

Both 'you do' or 'you have to' are fine in that sentence.

Be careful: 'meat' and 'meet' are very different words. I understand 'till yesterday' (and that is correct) but I'm afraid I don't really understand 'a year ago from the time they got married'. Perhaps 'a year after they got married'?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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