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

Hi,
I'm teaching students about how 'when' can be used to talk about two actions that happened in a sequence. The course book has clearly laid out two different structures, 'When+past perfect+past simple' and 'When+past simple+past simple', with preciously little explanation. As a teacher, I had to clarify. So, I explained that the past simple is used for the first action when the second action happens as a reaction to the first one, and also when the second action starts well before the first action is over. Here the confusion is rather on what sort of action can be taken as reaction and what we do (use past simple or past perfect for the first action) when the second action happens as reaction (I'm not pretty sure whether some actions in particular examples can be called reaction at all, though) with still a perceivable time gap between the first and the second actions.
Thanks.

Hi Bki,

The use of the past perfect and past simple together is not dependent on using 'when'.

When two actions occur in the past we use the past simple for both actions unless

(a) one action is before the other

and

(b) there is some kind of connection (causal, for example) between them

and

(c) we think it is important or helpful to make this clear.

 

For example:

I saw him before I went to the meeting.

I had seen him before I went the meeting.

The first sentence simply tells us about two events and does not suggest any connection. The second sentence tells us that in some way (which will presumably be explained by the context) the first event (seeing him) has an effect on the second. Perhaps seeing him changed my strategy for the meeting in some way. Or perhaps it was part of my strategy to prepare him for the meeting before it started.

 

You can read more about the relationship between the past perfect and past simple on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi :)
What tense(s) should be used with "for the last ... years"?
Thanks.

Hello beckysyto,

The present perfect simple or continuous are the tenses that make the most sense because this use of 'last' refers to a time period that extends into the time of speaking. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other tense that would work here, though perhaps I'm just not thinking of one.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

(1) I taught in a drama school for the last 5 years.
Does the use of past simple mean that in the last 5 years I taught in a drama school but now I do not?
(2) I have taught in a drama school for the last 5 years.
Does it mean I started teaching in a drama school 5 years ago and the action has continued up to now?

Hello beckysyto,

Yes, that's correct. The first sentence isn't exactly wrong, but I personally would avoid using 'the last five years' with a past simple verb. I'd probably specify the dates (e.g. from 2012 until last month) instead.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

She ------- much better since she left the hospital last month
A- felt
B-has been feeling
C- has felt
What is the best answer and why please

B
BECAUSE we use the present perfect when we are talking about the effects in the present of something that happened in the past.

Hello Fedoo,

Assuming this is not homework (which your teacher can help you with), we're happy to help you with specific questions like this, but we do ask that you tell us what you think the answer is and why. If we can see how you understand the question, it will help us help you better.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

the best answer is b-has been feeling :D

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