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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

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Past tense 2

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Comments

Hi adtyagrwl3,

1) The two sentences you propose are also correct. The past continuous could be more appropriate in some situations and the past simple more appropriate in others.

2) In most conditional forms, the past is used to express an unreal (which sometimes could mean 'impossible') situation. Please see our Conditionals 1 and 2 pages for more on this.

3) No, 'can' and 'will' cannot generally replace 'could' and 'would', with the notable exception of transactional requests (e.g. 'Could you pass me the salt?' can be rephrased as 'Can you pass me the salt?). See also our can or could and will or would pages.

4) Please see our modals + have page for more on this topic.

5) I think the Conditionals 1 and 2 pages will help with this, but if you have more specific questions after reading them, feel free to ask.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi adtyagrwl,

I expect that you could hear native speakers use all of these sentences, and certainly anyone would understand them. If it were me writing, I'd change the first clause of sentence 3 to 'had been free', but otherwise they are correct.

Good work!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello teacher :
may you help me please ?
I Have two question
First :
I watched video appear
girl get out from room catching something and saying "i found it "
i don't know why she didn't say " i have found it "
second :
girl has just finished cookies then run to her grandpa catching Cookies dish and say
I made these for you
why she didn't say " i have made these for you "
this the video link http://www.englishcentral.com/video/23378/a-surprise-visitor

If I am not wrong, two past tense in one sentence is acceptable,
but is this sentence grammatically sound?
'the outcome was known well before the vote was casted.'

Hello grammarmonster,

Yes, two past forms in the same sentence can be correct. Your sentence is correct except for one detail: 'casted' should be 'cast'. This is because 'cast' is irregular: cast, cast, cast (i.e. the bare infinitive, simple past and past participle are all identical).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk,
How could "He said that he is thirsty." is possible when the reported words are not true at the time of reporting ?
In the previous example when I report to his sister John has had a drink , so at the time of reporting he is not thirsty. Therefore "is" should not be possible.
What do you say ?

Hello orton,

I'm sorry, I read your comment quickly and hadn't noticed that you'd given John water already. If that's the case, then 'was' would clearly be correct and 'is' would not be.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Sir in one of the grammar book I found " 1) In indirect speech if the reported words are still true at the time of reporting then the tenses do not have to back shift. "
It also says " 2) In indirect speech if the reported speech is made just after the original statement then the tenses do not have to back shift."

My question is - If point 2 is satisfied but point 1 is not, then is it possible to not back shift tense i.e; If reported speech is made just after the original statement BUT the reported words are no longer true then is it correct to not back shift the tense ?

For example - John tells me "I am thirsty." Hearing this I get him water in just few seconds. John drinks water and a minute later I report to his sister - John said that he was/is thirsty.
Which one would be correct here Was or Is ?

Grammar book also mentioned - If the reported words are still true at the time of reporting and the speaker believes the original speaker then tenses do not have to be back shifted.
My second question is if the speaker believes the original speaker BUT the words are not true at the time of reporting then is it correct not to back shift the tense ?

Thank you.
Please advise me on it. I'm too confused .
Your help would be highly appreciated.

Hi orton,

Personally, I'd probably say 'John said he was thirsty', though using 'is' could also be used in the situation you describe.

Could you give an example of the second point you ask about?

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

In indirect speech present perfect tense is back shifted to past perfect tense.
But why I see in news articles that the present perfect tense is often not back shifted to past perfect tense ?
For example - The President said that investigators have conducted hearings on different issues. (Direct speech - President said "The investigators have conducted hearings on different issues"

Why often I see in news articles that present perfect tense is not back shifted to past perfect tense though in almost every book its written present perfect tense is to be converted to past perfect tense in reported speech ?

Please advise me on it.
Thank You

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