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

thank you so much it's really helpful.

thank you very much. I was wondering about how we can talk about the past in the future tenses, I have found many information in which they explained talking about the future in past tenses but nothing about the past in future .

Hello Ali-k,

I'm not sure if this is what you mean, but you can 'will have' to look into the past from a future time - see our will have or would have page for more on this. There are also some more example sentences on the Cambridge Dictionary page on the future perfect.

If you had something else in mind, please let us know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

"They find it difficult to forget; they suffered tremendous hardship in the war."

"They find it difficult to forget; they have suffered tremendous hardship in the war."

What's the difference between the two?

regards

Hello chancornelius,

We use the past simple when an action or event is seen by the speaker as being finished and in the past - this is the case in the first sentence. We use the present perfect when in some way an action or event which occurred in the past is still continuing or has an ongoing effect in the present - this is the case in the second sentence.

Both sentences are correct and which the speaker would say depends on how they see the hardship. If it is still ongoing, or if its effects are still evident, then the second sentence is more likely. If it is merely a memory of a finished time then the first sentence is more likely.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hello peter,in a previous comment in response to learning(name) about the use of the sentences " 'We had never seen anything quite so extraordinary in our lives" and 'We never saw anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.'

you said ".......Thus we would use this(past simple) to talk in a historical sense about someone who is no longer alive:

He never saw anything so extraordinary in his life. [he is no longer alive]

If the person is still alive, we use a present perfect to show an unfinished time up to the moment of speaking:

I've never seen anything so extraordinary in my life. [I am still alive]
now i don't understand why we can say "They find it difficult to forget; they suffered tremendous hardship in the war." instead of "They find it difficult to forget; they have suffered tremendous hardship in the war."please help me,thank you in advance.

Hello manuel24,

The key is the time period in which the action takes place. If the time period is open/incomplete (such as a life still not finished or the current year) then the present perfect is used. If the time period is closed/complete (such as a life which is over or the previous year) then the past simple is used.

 

In your example the time period is not the life of the person but rather the war. Compare these two sentences:

They find it difficult to forget; they have suffered tremendous hardship in their lives.

They find it difficult to forget; they suffered tremendous hardship in the war.

In the first sentence, the time period is the people's lives and this is an open time period as they are still alive. In the second sentence the time period is the war and this is a closed time period as the war is over.

 

I hope that clarifies it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you peter for being always so helpful!

Is this statement written correctly? "I presently think about the past and how it came to be my future."

Hello Dragonfly,

Yes, that is correct. The only thing is that 'presently' is a rather formal word, so it sounds a bit unusual in this context, but the verb tenses are great. Good work!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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