Talking about the past

Learn about the different verb forms you can use to talk about the past, and do the exercises to practise using them.

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

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Past simple, used to and would 2

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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

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Past simple and past continuous 2

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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

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Past simple, continuous and perfect 2

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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

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Present perfect and past simple 2

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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.

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by paris-sorbonne on Mon, 14/01/2019 - 10:57

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Helen suddenly remembered she had left her keys in the car.
Can we use past simple instead of past simple here?

Helen suddenly remembered she left her keys in the car? like this

Hello ROMY learner,

Yes, that's perfectly fine. Most of the time when the sequence of actions is clear, it's possible to use the past simple instead of the past perfect. 

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

he was tired because he hadn't eaten. (can we use past simple here like this?)
HE was tired because he didn't eat(can we say this?)

Sorry,
its
he was hungry because he hadn't eaten. (can we use past simple here like this?)
HE was hungry because he didn't eat(can we say this?)

Hello Romy,

Yes, you can say both. They mean the same thing.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again ROMY learner,

As we've said before, the use of perfect forms is dependent on context and the intention of the speaker, so as Kirk says both of these sentences are possible.

 

I think we've provided a lot of responses to very similar questions from you which essentially all come back to the same point. For future questions on this topic, I suggest that you tell us what you think - how you would interpret the sentences and in which contexts you would use them - and we'll tell you if your interpretation is correct.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

1.He was stinky because he didn't shower/hadn't showered.
2.We lost the match because we didn't practice/hadn't practiced.
3I. didn't know he stole/had stolen my money.
*I was told here past simple means a repeated action in past as habitual action and not a single action in past (but i think it is and that's what i want to say in all these examples i want to imply it as a single action like in first example I want to say "He didn't shower earlier that day and later he was stinky" same with the other examples we lost because we didn't practice enough(as single action) and I didn't know he stole my money (as single action not repeated) so can i use past simple in daily life would it mean single action or repeated and i know past perfect is correct here but can i use past simple instead since timeline seems clear.

Hello ROMY learner,

The past simple can refer to single actions or repeated ones. Before reading your explanation, I understood the past simple forms 'he didn't shower', 'we didn't practice' and 'he stole' to refer to single actions.

The past perfect is also correct here. In informal speaking, the past simple is just fine. In writing or more formal speaking, or when you want the sequence of events to be crystal clear, the past perfect form would be better.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

so, If I say "he was smelly because he didn't shower" would it mean he didn't shower earlier that day and later he was smelly?
if i say "I didn't know he stole your money" what would you think it means? he stole his money as habit and repeated action in past or he stole his money just one as single action in past? same with the he was hungry because he didn't/hadn't eaten example. he didn't eat enough in past as habit, or he didn't eat earlier as single action and later he was hungry. and what's more natural between hadn't eaten and didn't eat in this context and is there any difference?

Hello ROMY,

These kinds of sentences occur in context and so it would depend on that.

I'd suggest you find a teacher. We aren't able to have long, complex conversations such as these through the comments.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

I know but can you please just explain for once?

"He was hungry because he didn't eat.
"She was smelly because she didn't shower.
"He failed the test because he didn't practice.
"Yesterday he was tired because he didn't sleep.
In all these examples I was told that past simple is not correct here if you want to refer single action happened in past. and they said past simple means here that he didn't shower,pratice,eat as a habitual action as repeated action in past and i should use past perfect. but now you told me they mean the same thing and 2 3 more American speakers said past simple is more natural in daily life, so I am confused. some are saying past simple is correct and mean the same thing and some are saying past perfect is correct. so, I want to know if I say all these examples using past simple what would you think? would you think I am talking about repeated actions or single actions that happened before? it would be really helpful if I could get answers.

Hello ROMY learner,

I'd suggest you take this up with whoever told you that the past simple is not correct in these sentences.

In the first three, there isn't enough information in the sentences or in the context (there is no context) to indicate if the actions were habitual or single actions. Either meaning could be understood. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I can't see how anyone could say otherwise. Someone might say they think a single action is more likely and another might say it's repeated, but there is really nothing to indicate that either option is correct and the other one not.

The fourth sentence has the word 'yesterday' and so it's reasonable to think that a habitual action is not being discussed. The past simple 'didn't sleep' is not wrong here, but many teachers would probably want you to say 'hadn't slept' here, especially if it's in writing. But the past simple is not incorrect.

As I hope you can understand, we can't justify what other people say; we don't have access to their thinking. Please remember the comments are primarily for helping our users understand what is on our website. We often help people with questions about language that aren't from our site, but we do not promise to do this.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by jiyi on Fri, 23/11/2018 - 06:55

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jiyi on Wed, 21/11/2018 - 05:55

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by manuel24 on Wed, 14/11/2018 - 11:39

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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..

Hello manuel24,

When we talk about arrangements, we use the present continuous:

Mary is starting school next week.

 

If we want to say the same thing but referring to the future from a point in the past, we use the past continuous:

Mary was starting school next week.

 

Grammatically, you could say ...would start..., but this would change the meaning and no longer present the action as an arrangement. For example, you could use this form to describe a decision:

We decided that Mary would start school next week.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you peter,the sentence "Mary was starting school next week" could have the same meaning of "Mary would have started school next week"?I also would say if the sentence "someone would suddenly put a coin in it and it would begin to play" is correct,shouldn't be "someone would have suddenly put a coin in it and it would have begun to play?

Hello manuel24,

Those sentences are not the same.

Mary was starting school next week means that it was her intention to start school. There is no information about whether or not she did start.

Mary would have started... tells us that she did not start school. It describes something that was intended but did not come to pass for some reason.

The difference between the last two sentences is similar, but it makes little sense to discuss them without a context. Modal verbs such as would are context dependent. Your sentence could refer to past habits or to a hypothetical situation in the present or future, for example.

I suggest you take a look at our section on modal verbs:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/english-grammar-reference/modal-verbs

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

thank youPeter,to talk about arrangements can we use present continuous and "going to"indifferently?so can I say "Mary is going to start school next week?

Hello manuel24,

There is a difference in the use of these forms. Please take a look at our pages on the topic as I think these will clarify it for you. If you still have a question after reading about it on those pages, please post your question there and we'll be try to answer it for you.

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/b1-b2-grammar/future-plans

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/english-grammar-reference/talking-about-the-future

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by manuel24 on Tue, 13/11/2018 - 14:20

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hello everyone,i don't understand the construction of the following sentence: "But his career could have panned out very differently had he opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager".Why "had is not after the subject?shouldn't there be "if" after "differently"?

Hello manuel24,

There are two ways to phrase this sentence.

You can use if:

But his career could have panned out very differently if he had opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager.

Or you can use the inverted form:

But his career could have panned out very differently had he opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aya salah on Wed, 07/11/2018 - 11:20

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Hello learn english team I want to ask something about last sentence in the excersice why the answer is suffered not had suffered Aren’t they remembering their suffer so it an event happened and finished and then they start remembering

Hi Aya salah,

The past perfect is used when there is another point of reference in the past. In the first part of this sentence, the point of reference is the present (they find it difficult now), not the past, so the past perfect would be strange here unless there were some other mention of the past in the text. Since this sentence stands alone (i.e. is not part of another text), the best answer is in the past simple.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Hopefinder on Sat, 20/10/2018 - 20:09

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Hello Learn English team, I have found this sentence online which was mentioned as a general statement. "Facebook was basically invented to accomplish a social mission" The question is, is the using of model "was" correct here? I think if it is replaced by "is" word , the sentence will be perfect - as long as "Facebook" still exists, am I correct?

Hello Hopefinder,

'Was' here is not a modal verb but an auxiliary verb. It is part of the passive verb phrase 'was invented'.

Facebook still exists, of course. However, the sentence is not about it existing but rather it being invented, and the invention was at one moment in the past. Therefore, you cannot replace 'was' with 'is' here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MBAZAROV on Sat, 20/10/2018 - 08:55

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Please...Why are they sentences past simple and not past perfect when they have two past events? Before Lola went out, she ate her lunch. They interviewed 30 people before they found the right person. Before Anna moved to London, she lived in Germany. In all these sentences, would it be wrong to use the past perfect in the first action? Thank you

Hello Mbazarov,

When the context makes it clear which event happened first, the past perfect is often not used, especially in informal situations. If you were going to use the past perfect in these sentences, it would be used for the action that came first in time:

Before Lola went out, she had eaten her lunch.
They had interviewed 30 people before they found the right person.
Before Anna moved to London, she had lived in Germany.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by manuel24 on Mon, 09/07/2018 - 09:54

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hello,shouldn't be the simple past in these example? "you'are late..where have you been?" the mother said to her daughter "I herewith acknowledge that i have received a baggage delivery receipt from sogaerdyn s.p.a...."

Hi manuel24,

The mother could also say 'Where were you?'. By saying 'Where have you been?' she's showing how her worry (anger?) about the daughter's whereabouts began in the past but is still relevant now.

In the second case, the past simple would also be possible, though I'd say the present perfect is more standard in this kind of formulaic statement. As above, it refers to something that happened in the past but is important in the present (see the fourth bullet point on our present perfect page).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Wed, 04/07/2018 - 23:54

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Hi, A person stood/was standing behind me. Both the sentence has same meaning or not. Could I write, 'when I was a kid, a tree was standing infront of our house. I don't understand when to use simple or continuous form of verb 'stand'. Please explain it. Thanks in advance.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 05/07/2018 - 07:08

In reply to by jitu_jaga

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Hello jitu_jaga,

There is nothing unusual about the verb 'stand' here. It is used the same way as any other verb in terms of simple and continuous forms.

The continuous form is used when an action is interrupted by another action (the tree was standing in front of our house when lightning hit it) or when we want to emphasise that an action of a temporary nature (a tree was standing there but we soon knocked it down to make space).

Often the choice of simple or continuous is a choice for the speaker, depending on what they want to emphasise.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, I understand this but I was doing an exercise from book ' A practical English grammar by Thomas and Martinet'. Here it is ' The detective was following an old man who (wear)_ a black hat.' The answer was , wore/was wearing. How both answers possible here? When I read books I find most of the times authors use stood/was standing interchanably. Earlier you explained me about the verb 'live'. I live in London(permanent) I am living in London(temperary) I worked in that company(permanent) I was working in that company(temperary). Do the verbs sit, lie, stand and wear are used in similar fashion.? Please explain it?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 08/07/2018 - 07:29

In reply to by jitu_jaga

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Hi jitu_jaga,

 

The form was wearing suggests something which is in progress and is temporary, while the form wore suggests something which is normal or typical.

 

If you say was wearing then you are describing the man's appearance at a particular time. If you say wore then you are describing the man's typical appearance, just as you might say a man who had glasses or a man who had red hair.

 

Please note that we generally provide explanations of the material on our own pages, not material from other publications. We are a small team here and have limited resources, unfortunately.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Lal on Mon, 02/07/2018 - 10:22

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Hello Sir Please let me know whether these sentences give the same meaning or different; She stayed in London for three months. She has stayed in London for three months She has been staying in London for three months. Thank you. Regards Lal

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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Thu, 21/06/2018 - 08:58

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Hi, 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?
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 27/06/2018 - 17:19

In reply to by jitu_jaga

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by manuel24 on Sun, 17/06/2018 - 15:28

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hello! "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?
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Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 17/06/2018 - 15:39

In reply to by manuel24

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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 with '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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Sat, 16/06/2018 - 12:18

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Hi, 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.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 18/06/2018 - 07:30

In reply to by jitu_jaga

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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.

 

Peter

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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team