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

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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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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.

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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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dear sir, thanks for your swift reply, could you give me some examples on this topic. it would be easy for me to clarified my doubt. because sir 'could' is also used in general ability in the past and it also no longer true. pls clear my doubt sir. I think I'm confused. thanks

Hello akhi,

There is some overlap between the uses of could and used to - both are used to refer to general ability in the past, but as Peter mentions, used to has an additional shade of meaning: that what is said is no longer true. could is also used to talk about past general ability that may no longer be true, but the verb could doesn't indicate that it's no longer true. It only indicates that it was true at that time (it makes no statement about the present).

Your example sentences are good ones - both indicate that he was able to speak French - the only difference is that the second has the additional meaning Peter indicated. If you want to write a few more sentences and ask us about them, please feel free to.

By the way, for explanations of the different uses of could, please take a look at our can, could and could have and can and could pages - you'll see there are really a lot of different uses.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by akhi on Tue, 04/02/2014 - 05:46

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dear sir, I have confusion in these sentence. please clear my doubt. 1. they would have bought a new computer if they had saved enough money. 2. they could have bought a new computer if they had saved enough money. could we use "could or would" in same sentence for same meaning?

Hello akhi,

Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the meaning is different.  The first sentence (with 'would') means that their plan or intention was to buy the computer and it was only prevented by their lack of money.  The second sentence (with 'could') tells us that a lack of money made buying a computer impossible - but it does not tell us for sure if they would have bought it or not.  We can imagine a conversation like this:

A:  They could have bought a computer if they had saved enough money.

B:  Even if they had saved enough money, they wouldn't have bought a computer.  They would have gone on holiday instead.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hello sir, as per your reply, 'would' used where we talking only for particular intention or plan about the past. on the other hand 'could' used where we talking about the possibilities could have happened or there has more than one possibility or plan could have happened in past. thanks

Submitted by bader9kh on Tue, 17/12/2013 - 05:31

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hello,

i am  confused about question number 6,i used to think we can use "have never seen"   because the effect until now we never see !! can you please correct me? . thanks .

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 17/12/2013 - 09:09

In reply to by bader9kh

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Hi bader9kh,

I'm afraid I'm not sure that I understand your question, because the correct answer for number 6 in the exercise is indeed "have never seen". Imagine, for example, that you are showing some tourists the site at Palmyra. Perhaps one of them could say this sentence, which expresses that they have seen many impressive things in their lives, but nothing as impressive as Palmyra.

If I haven't answered your question, please ask us again!

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amra1234 on Sun, 01/12/2013 - 07:43

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Hi Mr,

I don't no why when I read the grammar it looks to easy for me to understand, but when I want to answer some questions, most of my answering is wrong.

Can you help me on this?

 

 

 

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 01/12/2013 - 19:19

In reply to by amra1234

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Hello amra1234,

I think what you're describing is a normal part of learning.  When we look at explanations things should be clear if the explanations are well written.  However, when we have to put them into practice things become more complex: we must consider the rules in a more complex context and work out that context before we can apply the rules.  It isn't easy - if it were, then learning a language would be no more than reading and memorising the rules, and we all know it is a lot more difficult than that!  So my advice to you is to not be too concerned that you make mistakes.  Remember that these are a normal part of the learning process and, with time and perseverance, you will make progress and make fewer and fewer mistakes.

Good luck!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bimsara on Sun, 01/12/2013 - 03:11

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Hi everyone!

'Married' I have learnt this as an adjective.'Get' also i have learnt this as an link verb by this website.Now I want to know can we say 'when are you getting married'. Is 'getting' also a link verb? can we use two link verbs in a one sentence?

Thank you for your help!

Hello bimsara,

You are correct that 'married' is an adjective (it is a participle form used as an adjective) and that 'get' is a link verb.  Link verbs can be simple or continuous, just like other verbs, and the 'getting' in your example is simply an example of the continuous form.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team 

Hello!

Sorry for ask this again.can't we say 'when are you married?', what's the difference of these two sentences?

Thank you.

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 02/12/2013 - 08:14

In reply to by bimsara

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Hi bimsara,

The link verbs be and get have different meanings: be married is typically used in the present simple to ask about someone's marital status, whereas get married talks about the change in marital status, for example, when or where the wedding was. (Before an adjective, get usually means become.)

Perhaps what you meant with your question "When are you married?" is "When did you get married?" , which is a question about date of the wedding.

Does that help clarify it for you?

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bimsara on Thu, 28/11/2013 - 04:49

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Hello everyone!

(given,done,used.......) these are past participle verbs.we normally don't use these verbs alone.But i have seen these three verbs used alone.as an example 'we offer a discount, payments done on or before.......' is it correct to use it like that? also i have seen that these verbs describe as an adjective .what is the meaning of this?

Thanks for your help.

Hi bimsara,

You are correct in saying that given, done and used are past participles of verbs, but a past participle by itself does not act as a verb. It is also true that past participles are often used as adjectives, and that is in fact the case in the sentence you mention.

This might be easier to see with a more common adjective formed from a past participle, for example frightened. In the sentence "Dogs have always frightened me", has frightened is the verb, whereas in "I am frightened of dogs", frightened is an adjective used after the verb be.

This is explained in some detail on our adjectives: -ed and -ing page. I'd suggest you read that page, and then if you have any further questions about this, we'd be happy to answer them there!

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bimsara on Wed, 27/11/2013 - 05:57

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Hello everyone!

i learnt somewhere that we can't use infinitive with (be) verbs like am,is are was and were.but i know that we can say "I was born in 1992".hear, is the (born) an adjective or a verb? can we use infinitive verbs with  those (be) verbs that i mentioned earlier?

Thanks in advance for your help.

Hello bimsara,

In the sentence you quote ('I was born in 1992') we can see 'born' as an adjective or as part of a passive verb form, and I have seen it described as both (and grammarians arguing about who is correct!).  It is ambiguous, but in my opinion it is most helpful to see it as a passive form; if it were an adjective then we would be able to use other verbs than 'be' before it.  In fact, I believe the active form ('bear - bore - born/borne) was used in the same context in the past, though it is no longer used today.

We can use 'to + infinitive' after the verb 'be', but it has a future meaning, used to describe (formal or official) arranged events in the future, or to give orders or firm instructions:

I am to start college in September.

They are to be home at 10.00 and no later!

 

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by saratbs on Thu, 29/08/2013 - 08:40

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Hello,

 I do have a doubt regarding the usage of something which has happened in the past and is explaining it to somebody else now.

For Ex:I am explaining a story about John who visited Thailand last month and I am explaining it now to my friends about his whole things.Is it correct to say "John didn't had any time to visit the beaches when he visited Thailand last month"

or should I say "John didn't have any time to visit the beaches when he visited Thailand last month"

Can we use here 'didn't had'?as it explains a time-period about the past.

Regards,

Sarat

Hello Sarat,

The second option is correct ('didn't have').  To make a negative past form we use 'did + not + base form (infinitive without 'to')', so we need 'have' rather than 'had'.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Helen,

We moderate all comments that users make, so it takes a little time for your comments to appear online. But please know that we publish comments as quickly as we can!

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by btdjr on Tue, 06/08/2013 - 05:24

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When we convert a direct speech to indirect speech, we sometimes shift the tense of the verb in the subordinating clause. What is the difference between the these two sentences? Are both sentences correct?

He announced that he will come back. 

He announced that he would come back. 

 

Hello btdjr,

In most contexts there is no difference in meaning between the two sentences.

The main difference is that the first one suggests that the coming back has not happened and still can; the second one may be used in the same way but may also be used when it is no longer possible for the coming back to happen.

Both sentences are examples of reported speech rather than past forms (the topic of this page), and you can find more information on reported speech here and on the following pages.

I hope this answers your question.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by missarshmah on Fri, 17/05/2013 - 12:07

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Hello

Could you explain use of past continous in future.

It was September. Mary was starting school the next week.
We were very busy. The shop was opening in two weeks time.

and also difference in everybody or everyone.Can we use everyone instead of everybody.

Everybody worked hard through the winter

Hello missarshmah!

 

If you look on our talking about the future page, you'll see we use present continuous to talk about scheduled or planned arrangements in the future.

 

When we tell a story or talk about the past, however, we move tenses into the past. At the actual time of the story, your examples would be:

 

[now] It is September. Mary is starting school next week. (scheduled arrangement)

[now] We are very busy. The shop is opening in two weeks' time. (planned arrangement)

 

But because this already happened, we change the tenses into the past to make your two example sentences:

[past] It was September. Mary was starting school the next week [a week after the time you are talking about].

 

In answer to your other question, yes, you can use everyone or everybody. Everyone is a little more formal.

 

Hope that helps!

 

Regards

 

Jeremy Bee

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by blerinacoka on Mon, 08/04/2013 - 16:41

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hi everyone!i can't make difference between exp. watched ,had watched .was watching i dont know how to use these words on the sentences can anybody help me ?

Regards,

  Blerina

Hello blerinacoka!

 

That's a very big question! If you don't follow the grammar explanation above, I suggest you focus on understanding when we use the past simple (He watched) first. This is the most important past tense, and the one we use most often. Try doing a search on past simple using the search box on the top right of the page. You'll see lots of examples and other exercises there. Have a look at our Johnny Grammar video about past simple, too.

Then have a look at the past continuous, was watching. Again, a search will help you to see examples, and you can also have a look at this page about the differences between past continuous and past simple. There's another Johnny Grammar video to watch, too.


The last tense past perfect (had watched) is much less common, so don't worry about it too much now. Come back to it when you're comfortable with past simple and past continuous, and you may be able to understand it better.

 

Hope that helps!

 

Jeremy Bee

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by vectrum on Fri, 10/08/2012 - 19:55

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Please tell me why I should use, (Q.No. 6) -- 'We had never seen anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.' instead of using -- 'We never saw anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.' . I assume the speaker is in present.

Thank you.

Submitted by Hasan Badran on Sun, 06/05/2012 - 11:43

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Hello there,

Does anyone knows an idea to improve the writing skills? please help me as my formal writing is very weak :(

Submitted by Carlos Andrés … on Fri, 27/04/2012 - 03:59

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Hello The LearnEnglish Team

Could you explain me please why the word "time" is placed at the end of the next sentence and what does it means?

- We were very busy. The shop was opening in two weeks time.

 

Thank you

Submitted by Carlos Andrés … on Fri, 27/04/2012 - 03:49

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... I meant, in these sentences in particular: 

1. Most evenings he would take the dog for a walk.

2. They would often visit friends in Europe

...

Thank you

Submitted by Carlos Andrés … on Fri, 27/04/2012 - 03:34

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Hello The LearnEnglish Team,

I was wondering why we use the modal "would" to make up the past. What does   "would + verb" means there? Maybe does it express something that couldn't be done?

Thank you.

Submitted by khin on Wed, 28/03/2012 - 17:25

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What are the stative verbs ? Could you give me some example please, thanks.

 

Hello khin!

 

Stative verbs are the name we give to verbs which go with thoughts, feelings, and our senses (seeing, hearing)  instead of actions. It includes words like believe, feel, and see. For example:

 

I believe it will rain tomorrow.

I feel happy.

I see two dogs.


We don't usually use these verbs in the present continuous, just the present simple. You find more information on our page about stative verbs.

 

Good luck!

Jeremy Bee
The Learn English Team

Submitted by saby89 on Wed, 15/02/2012 - 18:47

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hi

i don't understand when the past perfect is used. can you help me with a simple definition and examples.

Submitted by HudaL on Wed, 04/01/2012 - 11:56

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They find it difficult to forget; they ______ tremendous hardship in the war.

why we choose suffered not were suffering?