Past tense

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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Submitted by Peterlam on Wed, 30/09/2020 - 10:46

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Hello peter, "who ate all my cookies?" and "who has eaten all my cookies". "I ate all the cookies." and "I have ate all the cookies." Does these pairs of sentences differ in meaning . If so ,what is the differences. Thanks .

Hello Peterlam,

Yes, there is a difference in meaning between the past simple ('I ate') and the present perfect ('I have eaten'). The past simple form speaks about an event that we considered finished and entirely in the past ('Yesterday I ate all the cookies' -- yesterday is clearly a time that has already passed), whereas the present perfect form shows that we think there is still a connection to the present ('I have eaten all the cookies' -- here perhaps we are both looking at the plate where the cookies were before I ate them, and which now only has crumbs on it. We can still see the results of my recent past action.).

You can read more about this and see other examples on our Talking about the past page.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lima9795 on Wed, 23/09/2020 - 18:30

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Informal question: Back in the day, we didn't got/get any vehicles to move around . what to use get/got ? in regards to possesiveness equivalent formal sentence is Back in the day, we didn't have any vehicles to move around .

Hello lima9795,

Get when used as a main verb means something similar to receive. For possession, we don't use get as a main verb but rather in the form have got (had got etc). In your example, you could replace didn't have with hadn't got.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sun, 06/09/2020 - 21:04

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Hello. Could you please help me? Is the following sentence correct? - Nobody has come to see us since we lived in our new house. Thank you. I appreciate your help.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

That's not quite right. We would use the verb 'moved (to)' rather than 'lived (in)':

Nobody has come to see us since we moved to our new house.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 25/08/2020 - 08:55

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Hello. Could you please help me? Which sentence is correct? If both are correct, what is the difference between them? - When she left school, she learnt many things and decided to be a teacher. - When she left school, she had learnt many things and decided to be a teacher. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both sentences are grammatically possible.

The first sentence (she left) implies the following sequence: first she left school, then she learnt many things.

The first sentence (she had left) implies the following sequence: first she learn many things, then she left school.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 11/08/2020 - 21:17

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Hello. What's wrong with the following sentence? I think it is OK. - I did my homework when the telephone rang. Thank you.

Submitted by Badagoni.Naresh on Mon, 27/07/2020 - 04:18

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India went on to win after following-on at Eden gardens or India went on to won after following-on at Eden gardens which is correct

Hello Badagoni.Naresh,

'went on to win' is the correct form. In this case, the phrasal verb 'to go on' is followed by an infinitive.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Kapil Kabir on Tue, 26/05/2020 - 14:22

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Hello sir I have an another example We know When we change Imperative Sentence(Direct Speech) into Indirect Speech we use "to" to join two clauses. Like He said to me"Come here."(Direct Speech) He ordered me to come here.(Indirect Speech) We know that the Indirect Speech is also a Simple Sentence which has a finite verb(Ordered). If we change this Simple sentence into a complex sentence. He ordered me to come here.(Simple sentence) He ordered me that I come/came here.(Complex Sentence) Which verb is preferable here. My doubt regarding to this question is that can we assume this order as an Indirect Order if it is an Indirect Order then the verb must be Base form of verb.

Hello Kapil Kabir,

I'm afraid ...ordered me that I... is not a correct construction, irrespective of the form of the verb which follows.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Kapil Kabir on Sat, 09/05/2020 - 04:47

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Hello Sir, how do we use Sequence of tenses in a correct manner. Like, that clause(Sub ordinate Clause) follows Each tense in sub ordinate clause.

Hello Kapil Kabir

There are explanations of this on our Reported speech 1, 2 and 3 pages. Please have a look at those pages and try the exercises on them. If you have any further question, don't hesitate to ask us on one of those pages.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Satinder on Thu, 07/05/2020 - 14:07

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I wanna ask that Which is correct I want to buy the house which we had seen yesterday Or I want to buy the house which we have seen yesterday

Hello Santinder,

As presented and without any other context, neither sentence is correct. The present perfect (have seen) is not used in a finished time context (yesterday). The past perfect (had seen) is only used when there is a second past reference, not a present time reference (want).

 

The most natural way to form this sentence is with a past simple verb:

I want to buy the house which we saw yesterday.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Marmar234 on Sun, 08/03/2020 - 23:28

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I have question If I have visited place and I am describing it should I refer to present simple or past simple and also the people if I am talking about my someone at past but i wanna say they are kind for ex should I use present simple or past simple Thanks in advance

Hello Marmar234

You can choose whether to speak about it in the present or in the past. In general, if you want to focus on your visit and your experience there, the past is probably a better choice. If you want to focus on the place, then the present might make more sense. The same is true for speaking about people.

You might find the Talking about the past page useful.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Baruwanku on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 14:38

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It is actually an introduction. Now I know why it is so. Thank you so much, I highly appreciate.

Submitted by mehransam05 on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 12:09

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Hi there, Fight to enemy or fight enemy? Which one is correct and why? Thanks in advance
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Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 13/02/2020 - 07:08

In reply to by mehransam05

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Hello mehransam05

'to' is not used before the object of the verb 'fight' -- we just say 'fight the enemy' here.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Baruwanku on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 09:44

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Please it not clear to me why I should use "is" and past tense in the following context (where chapter x has already been written): In chapter x concept y "is presented". I was expecting: In chapter x concept y "was presented".

Hello Baruwanku

I can't say for sure without knowing the context, but, for example, if this is the introduction to a book, since it is explaining the contents of the book, which still exists, the present tense makes sense. If you were explaining an event that happened in the past, then the past tense would be better.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Anubhav on Sun, 08/12/2019 - 11:05

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Help with the tenses please- "Back in college, i came to know she had a boyfriend who she had been dating for a while" - is this sentence correct considering the could is still dating?

Hello Anubhav

That is grammatically correct. It indicates that she had the boyfriend in the past (when you were in college), but it doesn't say anything about the moment of speaking.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Sat, 07/12/2019 - 06:02

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Hi Peter & Kirk, I always get confused using the verb think in past form. Ex- I thought Alisha was still with me that morning. I was thinking Alisha was still with me that morning. Could you please explain me the meaning of these two sentences and when to use "thought" and "was thinking" in a sentence with example.

Hi jitu_jaga,

When we express a point of view or an opinion we use the simple form, whether in the present or past:

I think this is a great film!

I thought he was very nice last night.

 

When we want to use 'think' to mean 'consider' then we can use the continuous form:

I'm thinking about buying a new car.

She was thinking of changing her job, but in the end she decided to stay where she was.

 

Occasionally, you can find examples of the continous form used to emphasise an opinion which changed, but this is quite unusual:

I was thinking it was a good film until I saw the ending.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sumanasc on Fri, 22/11/2019 - 12:54

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He smelt strongly of rum. Is smelt a verb in this sentence. Thank you

Submitted by sumanasc on Fri, 22/11/2019 - 12:45

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Sir I need to know the verbs in the following sentences. I think they are, smelt, filled, squawking and circling. please let me know whether I am correct. The air smelt of wood smoke and my ears were filled with the sound of squawking birds circling above. Thank you
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 23/11/2019 - 09:27

In reply to by sumanasc

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Hello sumansc,

Those verbs seem fine to me.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rosario70 on Wed, 02/10/2019 - 16:14

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Hi teachers, i noticed this entence : sorry to keep you waiting . If i was gonna use it in the past could i rewrite that in the following way: i was sorry to keep you waiting or i am supposed to write that like this : i am sorry to have kept you waiting . Thanks in advance, i hope you will be fine.

Hello rosario70

Both are possible, but are slightly different in meaning. The first one means that you felt sorry in the past -- you could also say 'I was sorry to have kept you waiting' but there's not much difference between it and your first suggestion -- and the second one means that you feel sorry now.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 09/08/2019 - 19:01

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Hello. Could you help me, please? 1- When I was in Sharm El-Sheikh, I sunbathed a lot. If I used "would sunbathe" instead of "sunbathed", would that change the meaning? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam

It would essentially mean the same thing, since you use 'a lot' in the first version. Though 'would' would imply it was a habit, whereas the simple past is not as specific -- it could be just what happened, rather than being a habit, for example.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Shaban Nafea on Fri, 09/08/2019 - 14:19

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Can I say: I wish I hadn't gone shopping with you. I spent too much money. Or I wish I hadn't gone shopping with you. I have spent too much money. Are they both correct?
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 12/08/2019 - 22:53

In reply to by Shaban Nafea

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Hello Shaban Nafea

The first one is correct. The first sentence clearly speaks about a finished past event, and so the past simple is the tense you should use to refer to it, not the present perfect.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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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.
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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.