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

Section: 

Comments

Hello! I've just read comments about sequence of tenses. I used to think that only object clauses depend on sequence of clauses (she said she LIVED (now) in London). But there are many websites that says sequence of tenses isn't used with other subordinate clauses too. Peter M explained the example "he didn't get a job because his English isn't / wasn't well" and wrote that the second sentence could contain present tense (isn't) although the main sentence is past action. So, I concluded that clauses of reason didn't depend on sequence of tenses. Could you tell me which types of subordinate clauses also don't depend on sequence of tenses?

Hello Alex H,

In my answer I made the point that the use of different verb forms is really based not upon the nature of the clause but on the logical meaning being expressed. In the examples I quoted the issue was whether or not the action or state is still true or not (or is not known). Looking for a rule which is dependent on the type of subordinate clause is a false path, I would suggest, and is exactly the mistake which the earlier poster was making in his question.

 

To give you just one more example, it is perfectly fine to say all of the following:

 

She said she had lived in London.

She said she lived in London.

She said she has lived in London.

She said she lives in London.

She said she was going to live in London.

She said she is going to live in London.

She said she would live in London.

She said she will live in London.

 

And many other forms are possible as well. The choice - and it is a choice - is the speaker's, and depends not upon the nature of the clause but on the meaning which the speaker wishes to express.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Are both these sentences correct or not?
Did you go to the job today?
Why didn't you go to the job today?

we use +ing with the first form of a verb in continuous while using the was were but sometimes we use past participle with was/were
why you do this?

Hi team,

I am confused about the sequence of tenses in a sentence with main and subordinate clause. I understand that in general, if the main clause is in past tense, the sub clause will be in the corresponding past tense. But : Is it true that If the main clause is in the past tense, the subordinate clause can be in any tense in the following exceptions:
1. this subordinate clause expresses place, reason, comparison .
Eg: He didn't get the job because his english isn't good (It doesn't sound right to me. Should it be: he didn't get the job because his english wasn't good )

2. when subordinate clause is an adjective clause.
Eg. yesterday I met a girl who sells cakes vs yesterday I met a girl who sold me a cake (again the first sentence doesn't seem right. Should it be : yesterday I met a girl who sold cakes ? But if it was correct then what is the different in term of meaning between the above two sentences?)

3. When subordinate clause start by "than"
Eg. He loved me more than he loves you vs. He loved me more than he loved you vs. he loved me more than he will love you.
Are all these sentences correct?

thank you.

Hello Widescreen,

I think you are unnecessarily complicating this. The use of tenses is not different because of the clause type here, but follows normal use. That means that different forms are possible, depending on the meaning intended. I'll demonstrate with one of your examples, but the points I make are applicable to the others as well.

He loved me more than he loves you (his love for me was in the past and is finished; his love for you is true now)

He loved me more than he loved you (both his love for me and his love for you were in the past and are finished)

He loved me more than he will love you. (his love for me was in the past; he may or may not love you now but I am talking about his love for you in the future)

 

Nothing changes because there is a particular clause here. The tenses are used in accordance with their normal meaning.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

please correct if I am wrong but when you say follow normal use, does it mean we don't need to worry about the sequence of tenses in a sentence ? (I.e. past tense goes with past tense )

But if I say " he didn't get the job because his english isn't good", it does't make sense because :"he didn't get the job" was a past action and his english must not have been good at that time in the past. so I need to use " wasn't" instead of " isn't ?
thank you

Hello Widescreen,

By 'nornal use' I mean that the fact that there is a subordinate clause does not affect the tense use.

In the example you quote you are making an assumption that the present simple refers only to the present, but in fact it can be used to describe something which is generally true. Both of these sentences are correct and make sense:

He didn't get the job because his English wasn't good.

He didn't get the job because his English isn't good.

In the first sentence we know only that his English was not good at the time he applied for the job. We do not know if it improved later or not, or if he would get the job now if he applied again.

In the second sentence we know that his English was not good at the time he applied for the job, and is still not good now.

Similarly, I could say the following:

I couldn't reach the book because I wasn't tall enough.

I couldn't reach the book because I am not tall enough.

Both of these are correct. The information is slightly different, but both are grammatically correct.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I need a little help to understand the tense in which a line of a poem by Stevie Smith, " A Man I Am", was written. The line is this: "I was consumed by so much hate". I need to know what kind of tense is "I was consumed". I understand that it has the past form of the verb to be (was) + a participle (consumed). I guess what I am asking is whether this kind of past has a name or not, and how can I understand it better in order to explain it to my students.
Thank you.

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