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

One question Please!
In the examples above there is this sentence ''We have lived here since 2007'' what if I say ''We have been living here since 2007''

Dear Adam,
 
could I have your assist again? It's about "the future in the past"  I have tried to read it over and over again the example.... but  I still couldn't get, it's totally confusing for me...especially for "was going to", it is "was" (past) but "going to" (future) so what actually we are talking about. I'm sorry, but to be honest I really stuck. I hope that you can give me more explanation about this one and when we use it.
 
Thank you so much Adam
beat regards
Luri S

Dear Luri,
Look at this example from the page: 'It was Friday. We were going to set off the next day.'
This sentence is completely set in the past. However, during this story people thought about a time (Saturday) which was the future for them, but is the past for us when we hear the story. This is when we use the future in the past.
Best wishes,
Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Adam,
 
Thank you so much for your simple and very useful example. I can see clear now. so it is used to tell a story or something that already happened
 
thank you Adam...you are the best

hi, could you clearly explain the difference between would and used to in the past?
thank you for your help
zahra

Hi Zahra,
They're used in the same way, although generally 'used to' tends to be used first, followed by 'would' if several actions are listed. There is some more information on this page and also this one.
Best wishes,
Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello learnenglish Team,
I wonder if the sentence I made below is correct in meanings and tenses:
When I woke up this morning, I said It was a long night that I had been dreaming about you or should I just use the past tense in the that clause:
It was a long night that I dreamed about you, or It was a long night that I had dreamed about you. Because with the past perfect it happened when there are two actions, with one coming first before another action in the past. So in this sentence is the second verb ''dream" counted as the second action? I get a little idea from your reply to other users that it is possible to choose the tense that we implied, it is not a big deal. But I am afraid that I would get wrong grammar in some tests that need the best choice.
Could you give me the differences between which and what when asking questions? ( I did have a look at the grammar section about it but I do not really understand because it was explained in short, sorry for that)
Thank you very much indeed.

Hello,
This is quite a complex sentence because there are three verbs which occur at different times: wake up, say and dream.
I would say 'When I woke up this morning, I said it had been a long night dreaming about you.' or perhaps 'When I woke up this morning, I said I had spent a long night dreaming about you.'
Best wishes,
Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

They find it difficult to forget; they ______ tremendous hardship in the war.
why we choose suffered not were suffering?
 

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