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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.


Hello Lal,

The first sentence has a different meaning; the other two are quite similar but differ in emphasis. The first sentence (she stayed) describes finished past time. We know that her time in London finished in the past and that she is not still staying in London now.

The second and third sentences describe an action which began in the past and continues up to the present. The second sentence (has stayed) does not tell us anything about whether she will remain in London in the future. The third sentence (has been staying) suggests that he stay is not finished and that she will continue to stay in London.

You can read more about the present perfect simple (the second sentence) and continuous (the third sentence) on this page.



The LearnEnglish Team

We use used to/past simple/ would for repeated action in the past. Is there any subtle differences between these three or between the use of simple past or would for past repeated action and could you explain from where the idea of using 'would' for past repeated action came?

Hi jitu_jaga,

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the history of this use of 'would' to be able to say anything about that.

'used to' means that the action is no longer performed; 'would' doesn't state this explicitly, but puts the focus on the past in a way that suggests it. The past simple is probably the most general of the three, as it has many other uses and without context it could mean any of them.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

"What could have been love
Should have been the only thing that was ever meant to be."
that is a verse in a aerosmith's song..
first of all i don't understand why there is not the present perfect even at the end,in addition the use of the present perfect at first means is there a connection to the present?

Hi manuel24,

There is no present perfect form in these verses. Instead, there is 'could' + 'have been' and 'should' + 'have been'. This grammar is explained in some detail on our modals + have page, but basically it sounds like the idea is that there was the possibility of love and the singer wishes that love had flowered.

I hope this helps, but if you have further questions please don't hesitate to ask.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

1. I finished eating.
2.I was finished eating.
Do these two sentences give same meaning?
Is the 2nd sentence in passive voice? Similarly,
I have done and I am done, and I have gone mad and I am gone mad. Please explain it. I don't understand.

Hello jitu_jaga,

The second sentence is an informal form which I would say is non-standard. It is used primarily in slang and certain dialects and it has the meaning of 'I had finished'. A similar form which you can sometimes find, which is also non-standard, is 'I was done + verbing' (I was done talking to him), and this also has the meaning of 'I had finished'.

In terms of form, these look like passive constructions. However, as I said above, they do not have a passive meaning and are rather very informal non-standard/dialectical forms.



The LearnEnglish Team

But, sometimes, In movie I listen ' I am done ' or ' I am gone mad'. That means 'I have done' or " I have gone mad' which are the active meaning.

Hello jitu_jaga,

A lot of the language in films is non-standard. 'I am gone mad' is a good example of this; if you want to speak informally in certain situations, it might be appropriate, but in most I wouldn't recommend imitating it.

'I am done' is different and is a standard, though informal, form. It means 'I have finished it' or 'it is finished'. See the Cambridge Dictionary entry for 'done' for more on this.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I have doubts reagarding use of verb ' stay'.
1. when I was a child, I stayed with my mom or I was staying with my mom. Could u explain which one would be correct and why?
2. During summer I stayed or was staying in Scotland.
Please explain it . I don't understand this.