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

Hello Jason,

As far as I know, most English speakers would accept such sentences without "that" and so I would encourage our users to recognise and accept that. If you believe using "that" is more proper, please by all means use it!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

I recently learnt that the following sentence is incorrect, " I am living in London"
I wish to ask you if it is true or not. I Could not understand what was wrong about it.
Thank you

Hello Sharbani1010,

That sentence is perfectly correct as it stands.  Of course, in certain contexts it may not be correct.  For example, if we wanted to add a length of time using 'for' or 'since' then we would use the present perfect:

I've been living in London for five years.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I am confused when I have a past tense in one part of a sentence but then present tense/facts in the next part

For example, are these sentences gramatically correct?

1. The graph shows that there are 10 recorded deaths in this area where people fell to their deaths when doing construction.
Should I use are or were in "There are"? Should I use fall instead of fell?
It's confusing to me because the deaths obviously occurred in the past, but I also see them as "Facts" because these people did fall to their deaths? Or are there multiple ways to express this?

2. He says that I have a talent; He said that I had a talent; He said that I have a talent
Based on the "reported speech" rule, then the first 2 should be okay. What about the last one?
Can I use the last one because he said it in the past, but I still have the talent even as we speak now?

3. He wanted to know if there are people jaywalking in this street. Is this correct, assuming that he is still interested now to find out if there are people jaywalking (and they are still doing it now)?

There are other examples I want to ask about, but hopefully your explanations will help me understand

Thanks

Hello Corsair777,

In order:

1. You can say both 'are' and 'were' here.  If you say 'are' then you are talking about the numbers - in other words, you are talking about the graph, which is in front of you as you speak.  If you say 'were' then you are talking about the real events which occured in the past.

2. Again, all three sentences are possible here.  'Says' implies that this is still the speaker's opinion; 'said' tells us that this was his opinion, but not whether or not it is still current.  The choice of 'have' or 'had' is similar.  'Have' tells us that you had the talent at the time of the comment and still have it now; 'had' tells us that it was true at that time but not whether or not it is still the case.

3. The same principle applies as above.  'Wanted' tells us that this was his goal in the past, but not whether or not it is still his goal.  'Wants' would tell us that it is his goal now.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your reply

What about these sentences, are they correct?

The reason you were successful in the job application was because of your finely polished resume
The reason you were successful in the job application is because of your finely polished resume

Thanks in advance

Hello Corsair777,

Again, I would accept both of these sentences.  The reason can be seen as both present (it is still the reason now) and past (it was the cause at the time), and so both 'is' and 'was' are possible.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

What to make of this sentence: "What can we do if the typhoon really came?" It is not really a second conditional (that would be: "What would we do if the typhoon really came?" The past tense "came" is used to express a hypothesis (but not an impossibility). Perhaps the sentence is a compressed "what if" clause: "What if the typhoon really came--what would we do then? Any thoughts? I'd be most grateful.

Hello Rudolphus,

It's hard for me to comment with certainty without knowing the context in which this sentence occurs.  However, it is a possible sentence, grammatically speaking.  We might say this if the typhoon's arrival was in the past but we are not yet certain if it really happened (perhaps we had heard rumours, but these were not confirmed); we are discussing our possible choices of action if the rumours prove to be true.  As you can see the sentence requires quite a contrived context, and it is not a common construction.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir ,
I have a question,that make me confuse.
What is the difference between "was and simple past"
For example: "she was promoted" and "she promoted"
when do we use "was/were" or "past simple"

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