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

Hello blerinacoka!
 
That's a very big question! If you don't follow the grammar explanation above, I suggest you focus on understanding when we use the past simple (He watched) first. This is the most important past tense, and the one we use most often. Try doing a search on past simple using the search box on the top right of the page. You'll see lots of examples and other exercises there. Have a look at our Johnny Grammar video about past simple, too.

Then have a look at the past continuous, was watching. Again, a search will help you to see examples, and you can also have a look at this page about the differences between past continuous and past simple. There's another Johnny Grammar video to watch, too.

The last tense past perfect (had watched) is much less common, so don't worry about it too much now. Come back to it when you're comfortable with past simple and past continuous, and you may be able to understand it better.
 
Hope that helps!
 
Jeremy Bee
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello
Could you explain use of past continous in future.
It was September. Mary was starting school the next week.
We were very busy. The shop was opening in two weeks time.
and also difference in everybody or everyone.Can we use everyone instead of everybody.
Everybody worked hard through the winter

Hello missarshmah!
 
If you look on our talking about the future page, you'll see we use present continuous to talk about scheduled or planned arrangements in the future.
 
When we tell a story or talk about the past, however, we move tenses into the past. At the actual time of the story, your examples would be:
 
[now] It is September. Mary is starting school next week. (scheduled arrangement)
[now] We are very busy. The shop is opening in two weeks' time. (planned arrangement)
 
But because this already happened, we change the tenses into the past to make your two example sentences:
[past] It was September. Mary was starting school the next week [a week after the time you are talking about].
 
In answer to your other question, yes, you can use everyone or everybody. Everyone is a little more formal.
 
Hope that helps!
 
Regards
 
Jeremy Bee
The LearnEnglish Team

When we convert a direct speech to indirect speech, we sometimes shift the tense of the verb in the subordinating clause. What is the difference between the these two sentences? Are both sentences correct?
He announced that he will come back. 
He announced that he would come back. 
 

Hello btdjr,
In most contexts there is no difference in meaning between the two sentences.
The main difference is that the first one suggests that the coming back has not happened and still can; the second one may be used in the same way but may also be used when it is no longer possible for the coming back to happen.
Both sentences are examples of reported speech rather than past forms (the topic of this page), and you can find more information on reported speech here and on the following pages.
I hope this answers your question.
Best wishes,
 
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,
 I do have a doubt regarding the usage of something which has happened in the past and is explaining it to somebody else now.
For Ex:I am explaining a story about John who visited Thailand last month and I am explaining it now to my friends about his whole things.Is it correct to say "John didn't had any time to visit the beaches when he visited Thailand last month"
or should I say "John didn't have any time to visit the beaches when he visited Thailand last month"
Can we use here 'didn't had'?as it explains a time-period about the past.
Regards,
Sarat

Hello Sarat,
The second option is correct ('didn't have').  To make a negative past form we use 'did + not + base form (infinitive without 'to')', so we need 'have' rather than 'had'.
Best wishes,
 
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Why I cannot post my question?

Hi Helen,

We moderate all comments that users make, so it takes a little time for your comments to appear online. But please know that we publish comments as quickly as we can!

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello everyone!
i learnt somewhere that we can't use infinitive with (be) verbs like am,is are was and were.but i know that we can say "I was born in 1992".hear, is the (born) an adjective or a verb? can we use infinitive verbs with  those (be) verbs that i mentioned earlier?
Thanks in advance for your help.

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