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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 Kaewnutwararat,

The three sentences you wrote make sense and are correct. In the first sentence, 'were watching' is also possible, depending on the wider context, but 'watched' is also correct in general.

Best regards,
The LearnEnglish Team

If David was here, he'd know what to do.

After IF the rule as I was taught in university is WERE, i.e.

If David WERE here, he'd know what to do.

curious who is writing this stuff?

Hello epidietics,

'were' is considered the best form in traditional grammars, but the truth is that people have long used both 'was' and 'were' interchangeably in second conditional constructions. So you could say it the way you prefer, but 'was' is also perfectly correct. 

These grammar pages were written by David Willis, a well-known applied linguist, and in general reflect the way standard varieties of English are spoken.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Sir,

I am confusing to use present or past tense about this sentence. May I know which one is correct?

1) One month ago, he said that the abbreviation of Oxford University Press was OUP.
2) One month ago, he said that the abbreviation of Oxford University Press is OUP.

Hello Conroy,

Both forms are correct here. 'was' focuses more on the time that he said that, and 'is' focuses more on the general truth of what he said.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello team,
I would like to know that can I use "was" in a past tense essay even though I am still doing it or having it now?

Hello Jswongjason,

I would expect that you can, but without knowing the particular context I cannot say more than that.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

I'll give 2 examples now :)
- I was a happy kid (still maintain now)
- I was a male (still mantain now) ?

Hello Jswongjason,

Normally, our gender does not change, so if you use a past form for something like 'I was a male' then you are implying that you are a male no longer, so this is a rather odd use unless your gender has changed. You might use the past tense in conjunction with another action: I was a male, which was unusual on that course.

I'm afraid, however, that your question is asking for a general rule when it really depends on particular examples and specific contexts. Which tense would be appropriate depends on the text as a whole, not individual sentences. As I showed above, even a very unusual sentence could be possible given a particular context.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

can you explain clearly the difference between [1] I WISH I WERE TALLER and [2] IF I WERE TALLER.and [1] I WISH I WERE DEAD.and [2] IF I WERE DEAD.
I know these sentences are in subjunctive mood.I am asking the difference