Past tense

Learn about the different past tense forms (past simple, past continuous and past perfect) and do the exercises to practise using them.

Level: intermediate

Past tense

There are two tenses in English – past and present.

The past tense in English is used:

  • to talk about the past
  • to talk about hypotheses (when we imagine something)
  • for politeness.

There are four past tense forms in English:

Past simple: I worked
Past continuous: I was working
Past perfect: I had worked
Past perfect continuous: I had been working

We use these forms:

  • to talk about the past:

He worked at McDonald's. He had worked there since July.
He was working at McDonald's. He had been working there since July.

  • to refer to the present or future in hypotheses:

It might be dangerous. Suppose they got lost.

This use is very common in wishes:

I wish it wasn't so cold.

and in conditions with if:

He could get a new job if he really tried.
If Jack was playing, they would probably win.

For hypotheses, wishes and conditions in the past, we use the past perfect:

It was very dangerous. What if you had got lost?
I wish I hadn't spent so much money last month.
I would have helped him if he had asked.

and also to talk about the present in a few polite expressions:

Excuse me, I was wondering if this was the train for York.
I just hoped you would be able to help me.

Past tense 1

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Past tense 2

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Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 26/07/2019 - 14:27

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Hello. What is the difference in meaning between the two following sentences : 1- When I opened the window, a cat jumped out. 2- When I had opened the window, a cat jumped out. Some colleagues say that the past perfect is wrong here. What would you say? Thank you.
Profile picture for user Kirk

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 28/07/2019 - 01:14

In reply to by Ahmed Imam

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Hello Ahmed Imam

Yes, 2 is strange or even incorrect because 'when' is speaking about a specific moment in time and the past simple is the best form to speak of such a moment in time. 

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ahlinthit on Sun, 23/06/2019 - 04:44

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I post this question here because I cannot find a comment box in reported speech section.I want to know how to change the below speech . Direct speech: "He had to go to school."

Hello ahlinthit

The simplest way to say it is something like 'They said that he had to go to school'. You should of course change 'they' to the person who is reporting the speech.

Thanks for telling us that the comment box didn't work for you. If you were on Reported speech 1 or 2, that's because we are currently revising those pages. Once they're finished, you will be able to comment there. In any case, on this reported speech page you can ask any other questions you have.

Thanks and best wishes

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Mon, 08/04/2019 - 19:38

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Hi, My question is about the verb wed. Should wedding be in past form like I wrote in the following sentence? Wedding ceremony everywhere, Oh Lord, bless all the newly WEDDED couples. For we that aren’t, direct us to the virtuous ones.
Hello sirmee, The past form is usually 'wed' and the past participle is either 'wed' or 'wedded': wed > wed > wed/wedded In your sentence, the past participle 'wedded' is functioning as an adjective describing the noun 'couples'. It is correct. Peter The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Thu, 28/02/2019 - 13:48

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Hi Sir, please is the following sentences correct Some people wanted to update status at the expense of their lives This is the first time seeing a girl doing stunts. Thank you

Hello sirmee

Without knowing what you are trying to say, I can't say for sure, but I would recommend saying 'update their status' in the first sentence. I understand the second sentence, but it is not correct in standard English: say 'This is the first time I've seen ...' instead.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Sat, 23/02/2019 - 06:08

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Hello Sir, please is this sentence correct. “He has changed my perspective towards cops.” I used to have negative thinking about cops, but now I realize not all of them are bad. Can I use “has changed” in the sentence above? Thank you.

Hello sirmee,

Yes, that sentence is fine. The present perfect can express a change in the past which is still true at the moment of speaking.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Sun, 17/02/2019 - 08:39

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Sir, please is the following sentence correct? Suddenly, he DIED yesterday in his room. My question is should I use dies or died? Thanks

Hello sirmee

'died' is the correct form to refer to yesterday. I would recommend 'Yesterday he died suddenly in his room' instead, since 'yesterday' first tells us about the general time and then 'suddenly' is more clearly related to the action of dying.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Widescreen on Wed, 16/01/2019 - 15:31

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Hello, Could you please clarify which tense I could use in this sentence please as I am confused as to which tense best suits to talk about a past event like this which leaves the result in the present: "No one knows exactly how the planets come/ came/ have come/ had come into being" thank you.
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 17/01/2019 - 06:19

In reply to by Widescreen

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Hello Widescreen,

The most appropriate verb form here is the past simple:

No-one knows how the planets came into being.

 

We don't consider the existence of the planets to be a present result here. Unless the consequence is an identifiable particular change in the present (something new), we do not tend to use the present perfect in contexts like this.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user amit_ck

Submitted by amit_ck on Mon, 07/01/2019 - 17:53

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Could you please tell me what’s wrong my sentence? sir I need your help. thank you. “Two weeks ago I tested my level on Learnenglish.britishcouncil.org. The result was shown that my level is Intermediate. “

Hello amit_ck,

The problem is in the second sentence. You need an active verb, not a passive form:

'...the result showed that my level is intermediate.'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 28/12/2018 - 06:44

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Could you please help us? I told him that we ……….. any more people today. a) hadn’t interviewed b) aren’t interviewing Is "today" an indicator to choose "b"? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both forms are possible here. 'Hadn't interviewed' would tell us about the time before you told him; 'aren't interviewing' would tell us about your plans later today.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Andrew.int on Tue, 25/12/2018 - 08:34

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Hello Sir Which sentence is correct first or the second? Please let me know. If my grandfather had lived up to ninety years he would be a very old man. If my grandfather had lived up to ninety years he would have been a very old man. I think the first one is correct because it is a fact. Please let me know. Thank you. Regards Lal
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 26/12/2018 - 09:29

In reply to by Andrew.int

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Hi Lal,

Both can be correct -- it depends on the context. If, for example, today were his birthday, the first one would express the idea that today he would be a very old man. The second sentence would be better for speaking about the past, however, because the conditional perfect ('would have been') makes it clear you are speaking about a hypothetical past situation. This would make more sense if, for example, his birthday were earlier this month.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Andrew.int on Tue, 25/12/2018 - 07:10

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Hello Sir Please help me to clarify this. When using past tense one can use only past tense unlike present tense one can use present , past and future I am I correct?Now I would like to know whether this sentence right or wrong. e.g. Yesterday I met your boss and he told me that you are doing all right. Is this sentence correct? This sentence is a combination of present and past but whole thing is something happened in the past. Please let me this sentence right or wrong. Thank you.. Regards Lal
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 27/12/2018 - 08:20

In reply to by Andrew.int

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Hello Lal,

I'm afraid I have no idea what this means:

When using past tense one can use only past tense unlike present tense one can use present , past and future I am I correct?

Verb forms are used to express ideas in logical ways. I don't know what rule you have in mind here.

 

The sentence

I met your boss and he told me that you are doing all right.

is fine. The meeting took place in the past; the telling took place in the past; the doing all right is something that is still true at the time of speaking.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user amit_ck

Submitted by amit_ck on Tue, 11/12/2018 - 10:33

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“I was wondering if I might take Danny into town?” Sir, in this sentence why used 'was' in spite of being it present tense? I think this is very formal way to ask someone but how can I ask it informal way? [If the way of my asking question is not right please correction it]

Hi amit_ck,

We often use the past tense to speak about the present when making requests. This makes the request less direct and therefore more polite. It is used especially in formal contexts, but is also sometimes used in more informal situations. There is a lengthier explanation of this in the Changing tenses and verb forms of this page on politeness if you'd like to learn more.

A more informal version would be something like 'Can you take Danny into town?'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 06/12/2018 - 17:42

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Could you please help me? When he (reached - had reached) 80, he died. I think both of them are correct, what do you think? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed,

This really depends on the context in which the sentnece is used. It's possible to think of a context when the past perfect would be used, but I think the past simple is much more likely as the sentence is describing a sequence of events which are not connected in any way.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by EthanF90 on Sun, 04/11/2018 - 10:31

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Hello, I had some questions on using past tense for politeness. I wanted to send invitation to another party, is it correct or natural if I write "We would send you the invitation later."? The second one is for greeting in email. I often start with "hope you are doing well", but would it be the same if I write "hoped you were doing well"? Thank you for your comment. Ethan
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Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 04/11/2018 - 15:44

In reply to by EthanF90

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Hello Ethan,

This use of the past tense for politeness is typically used with specific expressions and verbs for making a request.

'I hope you are doing well' is not a request and so it is actually just fine (and polite) the way it is -- there is no need to use the past tense here. The past tense in the example above ('I just hoped you would be able to help me') is a request for someone to help you, whereas yours is wishing someone well. Does that make sense?

I'm afraid I don't understand your invitation well enough to be able to offer any advice. If you'd like me to help you with that, could you please explain the situation a bit more?

Finally, I just wanted to mention that the Cambridge Dictionary pages on Politeness and Requests have numerous examples that you might find useful.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sat, 07/04/2018 - 19:51

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Sir, I didn't meet them till a year ago from the time they got married. I mean it was one year ago when I last met them from the time they got married.
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 08/04/2018 - 08:29

In reply to by SonuKumar

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Hello SonuKumar,

I think the best ways to express what you are trying to say would be as follows:

The last time I met then was a year after their marriage.

 

You could construct a sentence with since but it would be rather unnatural and hard to follow, so I don't think we would normally use this:

I haven't met them since their first anniversary.

I haven't met them since a year after their marriage.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sat, 07/04/2018 - 14:26

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Sir, I didn't meat them till yesterday or a year ago from the time they got married is it a right use of from ? We don't use 'Since' until we're talking about a point in the past to the moment of speaking right ? I don't have to face it as much as you do or you have to. which is right 'you do or you have to' in the sentence above ?

Hi SonuKumar,

Both 'you do' or 'you have to' are fine in that sentence.

Be careful: 'meat' and 'meet' are very different words. I understand 'till yesterday' (and that is correct) but I'm afraid I don't really understand 'a year ago from the time they got married'. Perhaps 'a year after they got married'?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Daniel157 on Fri, 30/03/2018 - 16:39

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Hello! Could you say, what tense/tenses I should use in these two sentences: 1) He (sit) on the bench for two hours, when he saw a pretty woman; 2) He (sit) on the bench for two hours, and then he saw a pretty woman. Thanks in advance!
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 31/03/2018 - 07:39

In reply to by Daniel157

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Peter, I assure you it's not the case! I just wanted to make sure wheather my professor is right or not. She said in the first sentence I could use Past Perfect Continuous (had been sitting), but in the second – I had to use only Past Simple (sat). Is this right? Is there such a rule? Or I can still use Past Perfect Continuous in the second sentence, since there is "for two hours" which emphasizes the process? Thank you!
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 01/04/2018 - 09:44

In reply to by Daniel157

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Hello Daniel157,

Context is crucial here. The forms suggested by your teacher are the most likely here and without any context to guide us those are the forms I would choose. The past simple suits the second sentence because the word 'then' indicates a sequence of actions and so we can see the sitting as something unitary and complete, as opposed to an ongoing process. However, it is not impossible to image a context in which other forms would be possible, including perfective and continuous forms. It's very hard to exclude all options in a decontextualised sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mteng06 on Thu, 08/03/2018 - 08:53

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Hi there, I am writing an article about my recent trip. I first wrote "After three hours ride, we arrived at the resort." Then, I want to describe the lobby and its surroundings. Which one(s) of the followings is(are) proper? 1. The lobby was so beautiful. There are trees around it. And there is pond in front of it. 2. The lobby was so beautiful. There were trees around it. And there was pond in front of it. 3. The lobby is so beautiful. There are trees around it. And there is pond in front of it. Thank you for your comments. regards, MTeng06

Hello MTeng06,

I would encourage you to try to meet with your teacher to get some help with these kinds of questions, but I would choose the second one because it's in the past tense. Your first sentence uses the past and so I would recommend continuing with the past.

By the way, a lobby is an indoor space, so it's a bit strange to mention trees and a pond near it. I would recommend using the word 'entrance' or something similar instead.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team