talking about the past


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.





I'm having difficulties in changing this sentence into past form.
"I feel I will miss them when they are gone."
is it grammatically right to change it into "I felt I would miss them when they were gone."?
I'm changing it to include it in a narrative text which use past tense.

I get the impression when it changed into a past tense, the person's feeling of missing them only occurred in the past and won't occurred again in the present or future. But in the first sentence, it happens in present (and maybe the future). I wanna know, is there a way to preserve that nuance?

Thanks in advance

Hello afif,

Your transformation is perfect - it is grammatically correct and sounds perfectly natural. It's true that the new sentence refers only to the past, and not to the present or future. To preserve that nuance, I'd say something like 'I felt I would miss them when they were gone, and still do' or 'and expect I always will', though there's probably a more elegant way to say that.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

I have some difficulties in understanding present perfect tense.
From theses examples what are the correct ones and why?
"This weekend was great because I've been with my friends" (sounds more natural to me) X "This weekend was great because I was with my friends". "This weekend was great because I was with my friends at a party" (sounds more natural) X "This weekend was great because I've been with friends at a part".
Thanks in advance.

Hello NataliaAlvim,

The present perfect and past simple are used differently in English compared to many European languages. I don't know Portuguese, but if it's like Spanish, French or Catalan, then there are many times when the present perfect might 'sound' natural due to its being similar to your native language, but when it is actually incorrect in English. Reading our present perfect page carefully might help you see this.

'This weekend was great because I've been with my friends' is a bit confusing because 'was' implies the weekend is finished, but 'have been' implies that it is not. If it's Sunday evening, 'This weekend has been great because I've been ...' would make sense, but if it's Monday or later, you should use the past simple for both verbs ('was' and 'was').

I hope this helps!

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir,

In the above sentence can we use had been instead of have been? which means This weekend was great because I had been with my friends'
Could you explain how to use" have been and had been".

Thanks in advance.

Hello thulja,

The meanings and uses of these two forms are explained in some detail on this page, as well as on our present perfect and past perfect pages. In your sentence 'This weekend was great because I had been with my friends', had been suggests that you're talking about a weekend in the past, and the reason that it was great was because before it you were with your friends. Note that it'd be clearer to say That weekend instead of This weekend, as you're speaking about a weekend in the past, which is more distant in time. The present perfect, which refers to a time somehow related to the present, wouldn't work here. The past simple, on the other hand, could.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

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

He broke his leg when he was playing rugby.

so what, he broke his leg and still was playing? shouldn't it be "He had been playing rugby and suddenly he broke his leg"? or it should have some clearer explanation for people with less knowledge about this tense, like "when we are talking about something happening before and after another action in the past /or something that was happening and was interrupted by another action"? i know that this is explained in another section, but still.

Hello arkadsq,

Perhaps it would help to think of the action in the past continuous ('was playing rugby') as one that was in process at the time the other action happened ('he broke his leg'). Sometimes the action in process (in the past continuous) continues (such as in the example with Jim driving away) afterwards, and sometimes it does not - which one is meant is inferred from the context. In the case of playing rugby, I think it's safe to assume that most people would understand that this man would stop playing after breaking his leg.

You could say what you suggest, though it suggests to me that perhaps his leg was broken as the result of some incident unrelated to rugby, i.e. that is happened during a pause in the match.

We are in the process of revising the English Grammar section and I'll make a note of your suggestion for the new version.

Best regards,
The LearnEnglish Team

Sir please tell me 1) is this sentence grammatically correct?"the milk vendor studied hard before topped the national level exam."
2)when modal verb would is used with simple present? Give all possible usage.
3)for politeness in present," I hoped you would be able to help me" and "I hope you would be able to help me ".What is difference between two? Give more examples to clarify politeness.(assertive sentences.)
I would be grateful if u reply soon.

Hello innocentashish420,

1) We would follow the word 'after' with a gerund form, so the correct sentence would be 'The milk vendor studied hard before topping the national level exam.'

2) I'm afraid I don't understand your question. Modal verbs can be followed by infinitives without 'to' or by perfect forms (have + past participle); they cannot be followed by simple present forms. You can find information on modal verbs on our modal verbs pages (use the links to learn about particular modals and their uses).

3) As the page says, we can sometimes use past forms to indicate politeness, depending on the context. The context is crucial as politeness is dependent on the interaction between the two individuals; therefore, it is often hard to explain why one decontextualised sentence is or is not polite. You need to see the examples in context, and you can find such examples on the pages related to modals (above), particularly with regard to 'could' and 'would', for example. You can also find examples and more information by using the search facility - like these, for example.

I hope those links are helpful to you.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team