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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



Hi Andy,

In the context of the grammar discussed on this page, hypothetical statements and conditional statements are basically identical. Both of them are used to refer to states or events that are imaginary or not real at the moment.

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, wondering whether you can tell me which is the difference among the following three sentences:
1. I wish I have not spent so much money last month
2. I wish I had not spent so much money last month
3. I wish I would not have spent so much money last month
Are those sentences grammatically correct?  If they are, what tense are they expressing? 
Some advises for correcting bad habits when speaking and writing will be appreciated as well...
Thanks a lot !

Hi MayelaM,
After 'wish' you have two alternatives:
'I wish I hadn't spent so much money last money.' [a regret about the past]
'I wish I didn't spend so much money.' [a regret about the present]
There is another possibility if you are talking about somebody's behaviour or decisions.  In that situation it is possible to use 'would':
'I wish he wouldn't complain so much!'
From this, you can see that the second sentence is fine, but the other two (1 and 3) are incorrect.
On your other question, I think I'd really need to know what the specific bad habits are before giving you any advice on those!  Is there anything in particular that you have trouble with?
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

'I have' is a present tense.
'I had' is a past tense. 
'I would' is a future tense.
Since you are referring to last month, which is something that has already happened, 'I had' would be the correct one to use, since you are talking about the past. 
'I have' would be incorrect because your sentence will refer to the present tense and the past tense at the same time. You should not mix tenses in the same sentence if you are referring to the same thing!
The same argument goes for 'I would'. 

Hello koga369,
As I said on another page, it's nice that you want to help other users.  However, your answers are not completely accurate and I think you may end up confusing people more than helping them!  For example, 'I would' is not a future tense (in fact, English has no 'future tense' as such, but rather a range of ways of talking about the future).  The verb 'would' is a modal verb which can have future meaning, but quite a specific future meaning and only in certain contexts.
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Can you please explain me the difference between the following two sentences. "He always shaved before going out in the evening." and "He always shaves before going out in the evening."

Hello Gamaya,
The difference is that in the first sentence, it's no longer true because he doesn't shave (or go out) any more and in the second sentence, it's still true now.
Does that help?
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You Adam. 

Hello :) i'm nabila aged 13y.o from Indonesia
i'm still confused to learn about past tense, and what is the difference between in,on, and at. i've been improve my English skills into my friends at school but it doesn't make any sense. my friends are still use Indonesian in my English courses. Sorry for my bad English, but this page helped me alot:) Thank you so much

Hello Nabila,
Your English is not bad at all!  The words you mention (in, on and at) are all examples of prepositions and you can find quite a few pages on this topic here.  If you type 'prepositions' into the search window on the right then you'll have quite a lot to choose from:
By the way, as you're a teenager perhaps you'll find our sister-site LearnEnglish Teens interesting.  It's got a lot of cool content which I'm sure you'll enjoy.
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team