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 Robert157,

Your first sentence, with both verbs in the past simple, is probably best for most contexts, as you're probably looking back on your time in Rome as a finished period of time. I'd say something like 'I lived in Rome for 17 years but didn't travel much' (or 'hardly traveled at all while I was there').

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I'm searching for the meaning of "Diobestiola".
Can you please help me? Thank you!

Hi Criscuotardo,

I've never seen that word before. It certainly doesn't look like an English word so I'm afraid we can't help you with this.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

In the exercise section I found these 2 sentences:
1- If she could see him she would be proud of him.
2- If you moved away you might not see them again.
I answered that they both are conditionals, but the auto-correcting gave me wrong for the second sentence!!
So please could you help me to stinguish the hypothetical from the conditional??

Thank you in advance

Hello Yasser Azizi,

I'm sorry those answers confused you. We are going to change the exercise so that options 2 and 3 are the same. It will say something like 'The past tense is used to describe hypothetical situations in the present or future. These may be part of a conditional structure.' because really these are the same thing. We'll also change the page so that the explanation is clearer.

It will probably take us a few days to do this. We're very grateful that you took the time to ask us about this. The page will be better because of you!

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much
Very greatfull

Could anybody please help me. I am not sure about tense in this case:
- I called you at 5 pm yesterday but you didn't answer.
- I (to be) busy all day.

Hello Polina,

We're happy to help with questions like this, but in the future please tell us what you think the answer is and why. That way we can help you understand it better.

In this case, 'was' (past simple) is the best form. Sometimes the past continuous works well in a situation like this, but since 'be' isn't used very often in the past continuous, 'was' is the best choice here.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

thank you very much!

I had doubts about using tense with 'all day'. I always use Past Continuous in such situations. But I've recently heard the version that Present Perfect is possible here, which has confused me a little...
Is it possible?


Hello Polina,

Yes, it is possible. For example: 'I've had a headache all day' or 'I've been working on this project all day'.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team