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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.


Dear Adam,
could I have your assist again? It's about "the future in the past"  I have tried to read it over and over again the example.... but  I still couldn't get, it's totally confusing for me...especially for "was going to", it is "was" (past) but "going to" (future) so what actually we are talking about. I'm sorry, but to be honest I really stuck. I hope that you can give me more explanation about this one and when we use it.
Thank you so much Adam
beat regards
Luri S

Dear Luri,
Look at this example from the page: 'It was Friday. We were going to set off the next day.'
This sentence is completely set in the past. However, during this story people thought about a time (Saturday) which was the future for them, but is the past for us when we hear the story. This is when we use the future in the past.
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Adam,
Thank you so much for your simple and very useful example. I can see clear now. so it is used to tell a story or something that already happened
thank you are the best

One question Please!
In the examples above there is this sentence ''We have lived here since 2007'' what if I say ''We have been living here since 2007''

Grammar is my Achill's Heel. than you for the information.

Hi Jack,
I've got a question about the use of simple past and present perfect.
When checking homework at school, should a teacher ask:
Did you do your homework for today? or Have you done your homework for today?
Did you bring your English book? or Have you brought your English book?
And what about students? Should they say:
I forgot my homework/book, etc. or I've forgotten my homework/book, etc.?
Old Walt Whitman thanks you a lot.
Best wishes.

Hi Ernesto,
Both forms are fine. I think the important thing you need to remember is that the choice of verb form in English is not simply based on an external fact. You can't always say that a particular situation forces you to you a particular tense.
Instead, you make a choice about how you choose to present the situation and that is what leads to the verb form that you use. So, in your examples, if the teacher wants to focus on what the student did in the past, they will use the past simple. If they want to focus on the present result of that past action, they will use the present perfect.
I hope that way of looking at grammar is helpful.
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

I'm very happy with this exercise. thanks.

we need more examples!