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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 jitu_jaga,

This is really the same question as the one below. Please see my answer there.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, whenever I read a book I find 'Once upon a time there lived a king' not they write' was living a king'.
similarly 'when I was a child I lived in italy' not 'was living in italy'. would it be wrong to use continuous tense or its meaning would be changed? could u explain it?
2. while I was living in Poland I met a beautiful girl. In this sentence why continuous tense is used and not simple past. Please explain how can I use live in correct tense?

Hi jitu_jaga,

As far as the fairy tale example goes, I would say that this is a fixed expression and not an example of a grammatical rule.


We use continuous forms to show an ongoing activity which is unfinished, temporary or interrupted, and this is key to your examples.

When I was a child I lived in Italy... tells us that Italy was your home.

When I was a child I was living in Italy... tells us that your time in Italy was temporary and that you did not see it as your home, but only a place you spent some time in.


The difference here is psychological rather than factual. Let's say a British person moves to France and remains there for 30 years. They can describe their situation as I live in France or I'm living in France. Both are correct. The first tells us that the person sees France as their permanent home. The second tells us that they see it as temporary, even after 30 years, and expect one day to leave.


Your other example show interrupted time:

While I was living in Poland I met a beautiful girl

The continuous form makes it clear that the meeting happened during the time of the other activity (living in Poland). In this context there is little chance of confusion, but in other contexts it may not be clear. For example:

When I spoke to him, he got angry.

While I was speaking to him, he got angry.

The first sentence suggests that the act of speaking to him made him angry. The second sentence suggests that he was not angry when I started speaking to him but became angry during the conversation.


I hope that helps to clarify it for you.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Peter for writing this long explanation and spending your valuable time. Now I am understanding it more. Actually English is little bit different from my native language. Have a good day.

I have an exam after 2 days . please reply as soon as possible. There're a lot of questions in my book about ( covered with/by/in) what's the difference between them?
Do we say the earth is covered by or with forest?
And the forest is covered with or by or in trees?

About that sentence " they left their home at 6 am " and they would reach London some 12 hours later" ...there is no context. I read it in my school book and it says that in this sentence they already reached London but it doesn't explain why . is there a rule or something I could follow ?
My book only gave some sentences and tells which future action happened or not in the past. I got them all but this one above . how do I know they arrived as the book says when there is no context.

They left their home at 6 am and they would reach London some 12 hours later .
Does this sentence mean they arrived or not ? And how can I know?
Thanks in advance

Hi uchiha itache,

What's the context for this sentence? It sounds as if it means that they did arrive in London, but it would probably be easier to explain this in reference to the context.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

hello everybody,I would say if these sentences are correct:
1-It's been a long time since I spoke italian
2--It's been a long time since I have spoken italian
3-I haven't spoken italian for a long time
4-I haven't been speaking for a long time
what differences in meaning are there between the first one and the second one and between the third one and the fourth one?

Hello manuel24,

All of those sentences are correct. I don't think there is a difference in meaning between the first two sentences, and I think they are used interchangeably by most speakers. You could also use 'It's a long time since...' in each sentence. Again, the meaning does not change.

In the second pair of sentences the difference is subtle and more one of emphasis and context than anything else. I think the second sentence is more likely to be used when the person is in the middle of the conversation. In other words, while the person is speaking, they would say 'I haven't been speaking...' whereas 'I haven't spoken...' would be more likely before or after the conversation. However, as I said these are very subtle distinctions and certainly not fixed rules of any kind. You would be fine using the two forms interchangeably, I would say.



The LearnEnglish Team