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Talking about the past

Level: intermediate

Past events and situations

We use the past simple to talk about:

  • something that happened once in the past:

The film started at seven thirty.
We arrived home before dark.

  • something that was true for some time in the past:

Everybody worked hard through the winter.
We stayed with our friends in London.

When we talk about something that happened several times in the past, we use the past simple:

Most evenings, we stayed at home and watched DVDs.
Sometimes they went out for a meal.

or used to:

Most evenings, we used to stay at home and watch DVDs.
We used to go for a swim every morning.

or would:

Most evenings, he would take the dog for a walk.
They would often visit friends in Europe.

We do not normally use would with stative verbs. We use the past simple or used to instead:

He would looked much older than he does now. (NOT would look)
We would used to feel very cold in winter. (NOT would feel)

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We use the past continuous:

  • for something that happened before and after a specific time in the past:

It was just after ten. I was watching the news on TV.
At half-time we were losing 1–0.

  • for something that happened before and after another action in the past:

He broke his leg when he was playing rugby.
She saw Jim as he was driving away.

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The past in the past

We use the past perfect when we are looking back from a point in the past to something earlier in the past:

Helen suddenly remembered she had left her keys in the car.
When we had done all our shopping, we caught the bus home.
They wanted to buy a new computer, but they hadn't saved enough money.
They would have bought a new computer if they had saved enough money.

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The past and the present

We use the present perfect:

  • for something that started in the past and continues in the present:

We have lived here since 2017. [and we still live here]
I have been working at the university for over ten years.

  • for something that happened in the past but is important in the present:

I can't open the door. I've left my keys in the car.
Jenny has found a new job. She works in a supermarket now.

Be careful!
We do not use the present perfect with adverbials which refer to a finished past time:
yesterday last week/month/year in 2010 when I was younger  etc.

I have seen that film yesterday.
We have just bought a new car last week.
When we were children we have been to California.

but we can use the present perfect with adverbials which refer to a time which is not yet finished:

today this morning/week/year now that I am eighteen   etc.

Have you seen Helen today?
We have bought a new car this week.

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The future in the past

When we talk about the future from a time in the past we use:

  • would as the past tense of will:

He thought he would buy one the next day.
Everyone was excited. The party would be fun.

  • was/were going to:

John was going to drive and Mary was going to follow on her bicycle.
It was Friday. We were going to set off the next day.

It was September. Mary was starting school the next week.
We were very busy. Our guests were arriving soon and we had to get their room ready.

The past with modal verbs

could is the past tense of can:

You could get a good meal for a pound when I was a boy.

would is the past tense of will:

He said he would come but he forgot.

We use may have, might have and could have to show that something has possibly happened in the past:

I'll telephone him. He might have got home early.
She's very late. She could have missed her train.

We use should have as the past form of should:

I didn't know he was ill. He should have told me.
You shouldn't have spent so much money.

We use would have and could have to talk about something that was possible in the past but did not happen:

I could have gone to Mexico for my holiday but it was too expensive.
I would have called you, but I had forgotten my phone.
They would have gone out if the weather had been better.

Comments

sir-this is regarding reported speech : I remember you answering to one of my questions about reported speech of past continuous and then you said that we can keep the past continuous as it is and no need to in back to past perfect continuous. I don't remember that sentence. But on your reported speech page you ask us to change past continuous to past perfect. Would you help me understand when can we keep past continuous as it is without changing it to past perfect continuous. Regards Dipak Gandhi

Hello Dipak Gandhi

In general, the rule on our reported speech page is true, i.e. in general, you should change past continuous to past perfect in reported speech. I don't remember the specific sentence you asked about in another comment, but I suppose it was a specific situation in which an exception to that general rule was possible.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for reply. What I I am able to recall is that there were two related events - one in present and one in past continuous - in the direct naration sentence and with that I had posted my answer - present event converted to past and past continuous converted to past perfect continuous. There in your reply you had said that we can keep past continuous as it is. This is something I can recall. If you could give some example for this as I can not recall the sentence because the concept is very important in my opinion.

Thank you

Regards

Dipak R Gandhi

Hi Dipak

In informal situations, when the time relationships are clear, then sometimes a past simple is used (instead of a past perfect) in the reported clause, e.g.

direct: 'I saw a horse in the city centre.'
indirect: She said she saw (or 'had seen') a horse in the city centre.

but that's different from what you describe above. I'm afraid that an example that illustrates what you explain above isn't coming to mind now -- I'm not saying you remember incorrectly, I'm just saying I can't think of an example at this moment. Sorry about that. If you find your comment I can help you with it.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Неllo again,Team!
Your example : "He broke his leg when he was playing rugby", - if we replaced 'he was plaing' by 'he played' ,

' He broke his leg when he played rugby',

how would that change the meaning of the sentence ? Would this mean,for example, that he broke his leg in one of the games which he played in the past?, Or maybe I again overcomplicate these things?

Hello Slava B,

Both forms are possible, but there is a difference in meaning.

If we use the continuous form (was playing) then we mean that the accident happened during a game.

If we use the simple form (played) then we only know that the accident happened during the period of his life when he was a rugby player. Of course, we might expect that it took place during a game because of the context, but the sentence does not explicity tell us that.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot again,Peter,for your reply eliminating any doubts !

Hello! Could someone, please, explain to me: how we use future tenses when the narration is about the past.
Eg: (autobiography: He was born [...] then he marries [...] he will become [a writer].
Other words can we use past, present, and future in a narrative and what are the rules except those mentioned in the article. Is it possible for fiction literature. Thank you!

Hellp Tanusha,

There are several ways to talk about the future in the past - in other words, looking forward from a position in the past, as is often done in biographies. You could use 'would', for example:

Paul will be a great writer. [future prediction]

Even at school, everyone knew Paul would be a great writer. [future in the past]

 

Similar forms exist using going to (is going to > was going to) and the present continuous for future reference (is verbing > was verbing).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello:) I’m still unable to use the present perfect and the simple past properly even though my answers to these exercises were correct. For instance, I don’t know whether saying “I have sat for the exams, but I didn’t do well on all of them” is more correct than saying “I have sat for the exams, but I haven’t done well on all of them.” Shouldn’t both verbs be in the present perfect?

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