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Talking about the past

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)

Past simple, used to and would 1


Past simple, used to and would 2


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.

Past simple and past continuous 1


Past simple and past continuous 2


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.

Past simple, continuous and perfect 1


Past simple, continuous and perfect 2


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.

Present perfect and past simple 1


Present perfect and past simple 2


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.


Thank you Mr. Peter. But there is one point that i still don't understand. Why is it past tense? Is there any sign? Is it about with word "publish" ?

Hello baburbb,

In your sentence, the verb publish refers to the act of creating a book/journal/magazine etc. Before the book is available to buy it is not published; when it is available is has been published. The act of publishing, in your sentence, happened in the past.


Here is another example:

Melville’s sixth book, Moby-Dick, was first published in October 1851 in London.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello teacher, i'm sorry to ask a question thay surely a lot of other users have asked many times, and probably you've already answered it somewhere else in this website.. it is about a sentence that i found in a book i'm reading right now. the sentence goes like that " she thought that he took advantage of her mother "..i was wondering why didn't he use the past perfect instead of past simple in the second verb "she thought that he had taken advantage of her mother " since the action of taking advantage is a past action comparing to the action of thinking...many thanks

Hello paris-sorbonne

Without knowing more about the text, I can't really say more about this specific instance, I'm afraid, but as you suggest, it looks as if it would indeed be correct to use the past perfect tense here. Often, when the context is clear people use a simpler form (such as the past simple here), especially in speaking. Perhaps that is why the writer chose to use it here.

Hope this helps!

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear, teachers
I understand the difference now.Thank you so much. But I just remember and I am confuse again. If you don't mind, I ask again: You said that we use Past perfect Continues when the cooking was done when I arrived. But,
Can we use past perfect (my mother had cooked the dinner when I arrived) to say that? I thaught that we are supposed to use "had been cooking" to say how long the cooking had been done when I arrived. Am I wrong?thank you.

Hi jiyi,

First of all, I just wanted to clarify that there are many situations when the past perfect continuous could be used; my example was just one. Others are certainly possible, though.

If you used the past perfect simple here, it would be grammatically correct, but which form is best really depends on how you are imagining that moment in the past and what purpose you have in saying it. Without knowing what you want to communicate, it's difficult to recommend a specific form. For example, imagine I'd brought home some dinner because it was Mother's Day and I wanted my mother to have a break from cooking. In this case, I'd probably say something like 'My mother had already cooked dinner when I arrived.' 

I'm not sure if this is going to help you. I'm sorry about this -- it's just difficult to recommend or explain a specific form without knowing much more about the context or speaker's intentions.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello jiyi,

Yes, that's right -- well done!

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear teachers, I would like to ask about these two sentences :
She was cooking when I arrived.
She had been cooking when I arrived.

are those sentence correct ?if they are correct, do they have the same meaning? If they don't, please help me tyo understand why. Thank you, teachers. :)

Hi jiyi,

Both sentences are grammatically correct, but whether they are correct in a particular situation depends on the situation and what you mean. For example, the first one would be appropriate when you arrive home from work and see your mother cooking in that moment. But if you arrive home and see hot food on the table and that your mother has just finished washing her hands, then the second one would be the appropriate one (and not the first, since the cooking is done).

So the past continuous expresses an action that was still in progress, whereas the past perfect continuous talks about the result of an action that just finished. Does that make sense?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

hello,why is there not "Mary would start school the next week" instead of Mary was starting school the next day" as your example above? that sounds me bad..