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.






What is the difference between past continuous and past perfect continuous ? I'm little bit confused.

Thanks in advance.

Hi Sss_,

You can find explanations of these on our past continuous and past perfect pages. If you have any questions after reading them, please don't hesitate to ask us on one of those pages.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear The LearnEnglish Team!
There is the first line in the Queen song Radio Gaga -
I'd sit alone and watch your light,
My only friend through teenage nights,
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio,

So, is it "I had sit alone" or "I would sit alone?"
And why not "sat alone" if it is describing the past?

Thanks in advance!


Hello Primegirl,

It's 'I would sit alone'. They could have used the past simple here as well, but 'would' adds a bit more meaning: 'would' can be used to talk about something that we did often in the past because we wanted to do it – see our will or would page for more on this.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk!
I have a question I looked up in a number of grammars, but I can't seem to find a straight answer. My question is about reported speech. The grammar says that in English, the tense must not change if the reported situation remains unchanged at the moment you're speaking. If someone tells me:"I'll come tomorrow.", how should I report this sentence to someone else, ten minutes later? Shouldn't we say: "He said he will come tomorrow"? and not "He said he would come tomorrow?" since ten minutes later, the other person's action is still in the future? I hope my question is clear enough. Thank you in advance for your help.

Hello Francois,

In reported speech we can change the tense backwards irrespective of whether the situation has changed or not. If the situation has changed then we can choose not to change the tense, and in this case we provide extra information. For example:

She said she loved me. [This does not tell us if she still loves me or not - perhaps she does, perhaps she does not]

She said she loves me. [This gives us extra information - not only did she love me when she said it, but she still loves me now]

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Memuna Salifu Ussif,

'Being' is the present participle form and 'been' is the past participle form of the verb 'be'. They are used in many different ways. Perhaps you have an example sentence or two with these forms which you would like us to explain. If so, please post it and we'll be happy to comment.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

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