Level: intermediate

Past tense

There are two tenses in English – past and present.

The past tense in English is used:

  • to talk about the past
  • to talk about hypotheses (when we imagine something)
  • for politeness.

There are four past tense forms in English:

Past simple: I worked
Past continuous: I was working
Past perfect: I had worked
Past perfect continuous: I had been working

We use these forms:

  • to talk about the past:

He worked at McDonald's. He had worked there since July.
He was working at McDonald's. He had been working there since July.

  • to refer to the present or future in hypotheses:

It might be dangerous. Suppose they got lost.

This use is very common in wishes:

I wish it wasn't so cold.

and in conditions with if:

He could get a new job if he really tried.
If Jack was playing, they would probably win.

For hypotheses, wishes and conditions in the past, we use the past perfect:

It was very dangerous. What if you had got lost?
I wish I hadn't spent so much money last month.
I would have helped him if he had asked.

and also to talk about the present in a few polite expressions:

Excuse me, I was wondering if this was the train for York.
I just hoped you would be able to help me.

Past tense 1

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Past tense 2

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Comments

please, help me
what's the difference between hypothetical statement and conditional statement
thank you so much!

Hi Andy,

In the context of the grammar discussed on this page, hypothetical statements and conditional statements are basically identical. Both of them are used to refer to states or events that are imaginary or not real at the moment.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi there! Is it okay to mix past tenses as in: "Accountants were bent over their computer keyboards, tapping away at a furious pace, while other staffers were arguing with clients over the phone. Proofcheckers perused printouts, while the tea boy filled cups of tea."
I've used past continuous in the first sentence and simple past in the second. Is this okay in a fictional narrative? It does sound okay to me, but an opinion is needed!

Hi Pierre Francis,

That looks absolutely fine to me.  It's perfectly acceptable to use a range of past forms in a narrative - in fact, it's really quite essential.  If the narrative were written using, for example, only past simple forms then it would sound very unnatural and the style would be poor.  In narratives we use many verb forms, but the most common are actually called, collectively, the 'narrative tenses': past simple, past continuous, past perfect simple and past perfect continuous.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Peter, that was most helpful.

Hi!
Here is sentence l can't understand,help me to translate;
"The experiments have been being caried out since 1997."in what tense this sentence?
best wishes!

Hello MIRAZH,

This is an example of a present perfect continuous passive form, expressing an unfinished past activity (the experiments started in the past, are repeated events and are still continuing) without reference to the subject.

It is a quite correct sentence but is a very long and very unusual form - because it is so long and complex it is usually avoided as stylistically it feels quite clumsy, and so active forms are usually preferred:

'We/Scientists/They (etc.) have been carrying out the experiments since 1997.'

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Peter M.
l think l already got it...

HELLO THERE!

I thought when we use 'IF' it means that is a conditional sentence.But in question 7 and 8 in this exercise they said that they aren't conditional sentences.Could you explain how we identify these things?

Thank you.

Hello bimsara,

I think you've misinterpreted the answers to these questions.  It does not say that they are not conditionals; it simply explains the use of the past tense in each sentence.  It is quite possible to form a conditional without a past tense.  Indeed, often there is a choice of using present + will (a first conditional) or past + would (second conditional), and there are various reasons why you might choose the latter, including politeness. In other words, just because the reason for the use of the past tense is, say, politness, it does not mean that the sentence is not a conditional sentence.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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