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

Hi Peter, I just want to know how to differentiate between "was" and "has"...when to use was and when we can use has?
which one is correct?
eg: 1.He was signed into a law to create a national card payment system.
2.He has signed into a law to create a national card payment system.

Hello RUSHDAN,

Neither of those sentences is correct, I am afraid.  We would use 'was signed' in a passive sentence where we start with the thing that was signed:

The proposal was signed into law to create a national card payment system.

We would use 'has signed' in a present perfect sentence announcing news of the signing.  This sentence would be active and would start with the person doing the signing:

The president has signed the proposal into law to create a national card payment system.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.  You can find more information on the present perfect on this page and this page and more information on passive forms here.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir ,
I have a question,that make me confuse.
What is the difference between "was and simple past"
For example: "she was promoted" and "she promoted"
when do we use "was/were" or "past simple"

Hello akhi,

"promoted" is the verb promote in the simple past tense in the active voice. "was promoted" is the same verb, and also in the simple past tense, but in the passive voice. One our active and passive voice page, you can find an explanation of, examples of, and exercises to practise the difference between these two voices.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

What to make of this sentence: "What can we do if the typhoon really came?" It is not really a second conditional (that would be: "What would we do if the typhoon really came?" The past tense "came" is used to express a hypothesis (but not an impossibility). Perhaps the sentence is a compressed "what if" clause: "What if the typhoon really came--what would we do then? Any thoughts? I'd be most grateful.

Hello Rudolphus,

It's hard for me to comment with certainty without knowing the context in which this sentence occurs.  However, it is a possible sentence, grammatically speaking.  We might say this if the typhoon's arrival was in the past but we are not yet certain if it really happened (perhaps we had heard rumours, but these were not confirmed); we are discussing our possible choices of action if the rumours prove to be true.  As you can see the sentence requires quite a contrived context, and it is not a common construction.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I am confused when I have a past tense in one part of a sentence but then present tense/facts in the next part

For example, are these sentences gramatically correct?

1. The graph shows that there are 10 recorded deaths in this area where people fell to their deaths when doing construction.
Should I use are or were in "There are"? Should I use fall instead of fell?
It's confusing to me because the deaths obviously occurred in the past, but I also see them as "Facts" because these people did fall to their deaths? Or are there multiple ways to express this?

2. He says that I have a talent; He said that I had a talent; He said that I have a talent
Based on the "reported speech" rule, then the first 2 should be okay. What about the last one?
Can I use the last one because he said it in the past, but I still have the talent even as we speak now?

3. He wanted to know if there are people jaywalking in this street. Is this correct, assuming that he is still interested now to find out if there are people jaywalking (and they are still doing it now)?

There are other examples I want to ask about, but hopefully your explanations will help me understand

Thanks

Hello Corsair777,

In order:

1. You can say both 'are' and 'were' here.  If you say 'are' then you are talking about the numbers - in other words, you are talking about the graph, which is in front of you as you speak.  If you say 'were' then you are talking about the real events which occured in the past.

2. Again, all three sentences are possible here.  'Says' implies that this is still the speaker's opinion; 'said' tells us that this was his opinion, but not whether or not it is still current.  The choice of 'have' or 'had' is similar.  'Have' tells us that you had the talent at the time of the comment and still have it now; 'had' tells us that it was true at that time but not whether or not it is still the case.

3. The same principle applies as above.  'Wanted' tells us that this was his goal in the past, but not whether or not it is still his goal.  'Wants' would tell us that it is his goal now.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your reply

What about these sentences, are they correct?

The reason you were successful in the job application was because of your finely polished resume
The reason you were successful in the job application is because of your finely polished resume

Thanks in advance

Hello Corsair777,

Again, I would accept both of these sentences.  The reason can be seen as both present (it is still the reason now) and past (it was the cause at the time), and so both 'is' and 'was' are possible.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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