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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 Touqeer younas,

I'd recommend you read the advice under 'How do I get started?' on our Help page. It would also be a good idea to spend some time exploring the site using the menu at the top of the screen (Home, Listen & Watch, etc.).

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much for the explanation, Kirk.


Hello The LearnEnglish Team,

Which of the following sentences is correct?

1. We saw a suspicious looking man climb over the fence?
2. We saw a suspicious looking man climbed over the fence?

What is the explanation for the choice?

Hello Mary,

The first sentence is correct (though 'suspicious looking' should be 'suspicious-looking') and the second is not. Verbs of perception such as 'see' are usually followed by non-finite verb forms such as the bare infinitive ('climb') or an -ing form ('climbing'). Using an -ing form implies that the action is seen as it is in progress, whereas the infinitive form indicates that the action was seen completed.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Is this sentence grammatically correct?
"In 1418, what was by far the grandest building project in Florence had still to be completed."
If it is correct, what tense is this?

Hello ria24,

This sentence is correct except for the position of 'still'. 'had to be completed' is the form 'have to + verb' (indicating obligation or necessity) in the simple past. Here, 'have' is followed by a passive infinitive ('be completed'). Normally, adverbs are not placed in the middle of this construction; the best location here is before it: '... in Florence still had to be completed'.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Which one is correct for the past tense of the word learn?
1. learnt
2. learned
Thank you.

Hello Ateh,

'learnt' is the form used in British English and 'learned' is more common in American English – both are correct. 

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

I would like to know which sentence is correct from the two below
1. I don't have assurance whether I will come or not
2. I'm not sure whether I will come or not
Thank you

Hello Oscas Po,

The second sentence is correct.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team