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Past tense

Level: intermediate

Past tense

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 (when we imagine something)
  • for politeness.

There are four past tense forms in English:

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 there since July.

  • to refer to the present or future in hypotheses:

It might be dangerous. Suppose they got lost.

This use is very common in wishes:

I wish it wasn't so cold.

and in conditions with if:

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

For hypotheses, wishes and conditions in the past, we use the past perfect:

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

and also 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.

Past tense 1


Past tense 2



Hello, I get real confused of the use of past tense. For instance 'it took me ages to notice that the guy WAS/IS from the walking dead' and also 'my mom told me I WAS/AM a good cook'.
Sometimes, english speakers tend to mix up past and present tense in the same sentence. Please offer me an explanation for this rather bizarre situation

Hello syazain,

I can see how this can be confusing. Notice that both sentences are clearly talking about a past situation, as they start with the past simple verb forms 'it took me ages' and 'my mom told me'. You could just always use a past verb form after these phrases, for example 'was' in your two sentences, but a present form such as 'is' is also commonly used when the phrase is also true in the present.

In your first sentence, the guy was from the programme in the past, but he also still is now in the present. In your second sentence, presumably you are still a good cook in the present. This is why the present form is correct here.

In some cases, only the past form is correct. For example, 'My uncle told me that he stole eggs from a nearby farm when he was a boy.' Here only the past form 'stole' is correct, unless, of course, my uncle is still a boy and still stealing eggs from that farm.

I hope that clarifies it for you a bit.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team 

Hi The learn English Team,

Is correct the phrase the men whilw hw was still at school?

I do not know which kind of verbs I have to put aferte since , before, whenever

Hello elisabetta,

Is the sentence you're asking about 'The men while he was still at school'? I'm afraid that sentence is not grammatical because it lacks a main verb – you must say something about the men. I'm not sure I understand what you'd like to know, but you might find our verbs in time clauses and if clauses page helpful – please take a look. If that doesn't help you, please ask again.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi :) for wish "I wish it wasn’t so cold", should it be "I wish it weren't so cold"?

Hello sapphiras,

Both 'wasn't' and 'weren't' are possible here. I would say that 'wasn't' is a little more common in modern English, but both are used.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, are these sentences wrong
The boy wanted to know who had written the letter.
The boy wanted to know who had killed his parents
The boy wanted to know who wrote the letter (is this correct) I have got a hunch that this sentence is wrong because wrote it's supposed to be in past perfect. Could you explain to me if it's wrong

Hello Rafael darn,

All of those sentences are correct. In each sentence the past simple and the past perfect are possible in the second clause:

The boy wanted to know who wrote / had written the letter.

The boy wanted to know who killed / had killed his parents.

The boy wanted to know who wrote / had written the letter.

There is no real difference in meaning in these contexts.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

''Because my rich dad had explained the quadrants to me, I was better able to see that small differences grow into large differences when measured over the years a person spends working.''

I'm confused why the past tense and present tense mixed up in this sentence.( grow, measured, spend)

Hello Danielyong96,

The present tense is used here because the writer is speaking about general truths. 'when measured' is actually part of a reduced clause – the full clause is 'when they are measured'. In this case, 'measured' is part of a passive verb ('is measured'), and this verb is also in the present simple for the same reason.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team