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 Qirat2004 on Sat, 05/03/2022 - 22:25

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which is correct?

while i was living in England, i was taking a course on english grammar.

when i was living in England, i took a course on english grammar.

Hello Qirat2004,

Both of those are grammatically correct, but which one is correct for a specific situation depends on the situation and what you want to say. If you can explain the situation and what you mean in more detail, we can help you choose the best form.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Sat, 19/02/2022 - 06:05

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Hi Kirk & Peter,
She was half listening to the music as
she flipped through the magazine.
She was half listening to the music as
she was flipping through the magazine.
Is there any difference in the meaning? Or any one is grammatically incorrect. Could you please explain?

Hello  jitu_jaga,

 

In this case you can use the two forms interchangeably. The context makes it clear that both actions were in progress simultaneously. If another action was being described instead  of 'flipping through' then there might be a need to highlight whether or not it was completed during the other action (listening) or in progress.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Thu, 06/01/2022 - 14:54

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Hello and happy new year,
Culturally, Europe made so many significant advances during the Renaissance that it (would be) impossible to describe them in a brief speech.
Why (would be) is used here? I mean the reason? Is it referring to the future? or imaginary?
Thank you

Hello Hosseinpour,

Yes, 'would' is used to speak about a hypothetical (imaginary) action here. By saying this, the speaker shows that she is not going to describe them in a brief speech because it is impossible to do so.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Haroun on Mon, 20/12/2021 - 17:51

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please I would like to know which of the following sentences is grammatically correct:

" I thought they have increased the wages"
" I thought they had increased the wages"

Hello Haroun,

The second sentence is correct. 'Thought' takes place in a finished past time whereas 'have increased' describes an unfinished past>present time, so they are not logically compatible here.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aeg on Tue, 14/12/2021 - 21:48

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Hi , Could you tell me whether the following sentence is correct:
'As John had been shopping in the duty free area his flight took off.'
Or it's better to say
As John was shopping in the duty free area his flight took off.
Thank you

Hi aeg,

The second one is better. The past simple action (his flight took off) happened in the middle of the past continuous action (John was shopping).

The first sentence uses past perfect (John had been shopping), but that is used for an action that took place before another action and which had some kind of logical connection to it (e.g., a cause and effect - "As John had been shopping, he arrived at the departure gate late" - it means he arrived late because he had been shopping). But it seems unlikely that his flight took off BECAUSE he had been shopping, so I wouldn't use that here.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Jonathan...
So, let me see if I understood correctly
The passengers had been waiting (not were waiting) in the airport for two hours when a bomb scare occurred.
(Logical connection?)

Hi aeg,

Yes, I think the past perfect continuous version is more likely. Using the past perfect continuous shows that the actions (passengers waiting / bomb scare occurred) happened in sequence, one after the other.

Some people might use the past continuous version, but I think it is less preferable because the phrase "for two hours" suggests the action is complete (rather than ongoing) when the bomb scare occurred. The past continuous would be more likely if the "for two hours" phrase was deleted.

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by PeterNosov on Wed, 13/10/2021 - 16:23

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You're asking me: "What did you do yesterday"
I'am answering:"I wrote a book"
What will you think ?
(A) That I wrote some pages of book (didn't finish the book).
(B) That I wrote a whole book (finished the book) ?
How should I answer in option (A) ?

Hello PeterNosov,

'I wrote a book' would normally mean that you wrote a whole book. If you wrote but didn't finish the book, you could say 'I wrote some pages for my book' or 'I did some writing' or 'I worked on my book'. There are other options, too, but these are some common ways to express that idea.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lexeus on Mon, 26/07/2021 - 14:04

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Hi Team, Could you tell me whether the following sentence is correct: The air turned cold. (cold as in the opposite of hot). I know that the word 'cold' is an adjective and not an adverb (which presumably should follow the verb 'turned'), so that is the reason for my query. Thanks for your help, lexeus.
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 26/07/2021 - 15:06

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello lexeus,

Yes, it's correct to use an adjective after the verb 'turn' when it means 'become'. If you follow the link and look at the example sentences under the fourth entry (look for the words 'turn verb (BECOME' in purple), you'll see a sentence very similar to the one you're asking about.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by CareBears07 on Wed, 02/06/2021 - 16:30

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Hi, I came across this sentence in a news article: It is also a crime if a North Korean is aware of the sale but did not report it. May I know, if using "did not" in the sentence is applied due to referring to the present or future in hypotheses? If that is the case, should we use "were" to replace "is" as the if-conjuncture is about hypotheses?

Hello CareBears07,

I'm afraid I can't be completely sure what time this refers to without knowing the full context, but it sounds to me as if it's referring to a hypothetical present situation (being aware) that is conditioned by a past action (not reporting).

It wouldn't be correct to change 'is aware' to 'were aware' because 'it is a crime' at the beginning of the sentence clearly sets up a first conditional for the main sentence. You could, however, write 'It would also be a crime if a North Korean were aware of the sale but hadn't reported it.'

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Cmd94 on Tue, 09/03/2021 - 10:21

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Hello, would you say “thank to my studies I DEVELOPED specific skills…” or “thank to my studies I HAVE DEVELOPED specific skills…”? (my studies finished one year ago). Thanks a lot!
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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 10/03/2021 - 08:04

In reply to by Cmd94

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Hello Cmd94,

Both forms are possible. You can look at this as a present result of a past action (I have developed) or as a past action (I developed). It's a question of emphasis and speaker choice.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by elena108108 on Thu, 18/02/2021 - 19:26

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I meant "when I was in China"

Submitted by elena108108 on Thu, 18/02/2021 - 19:25

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Can you please help me? which variant is correct: Did you eat anything interesting in China? or Have you eaten anything interesting in China? and why? thanks a lot)

Hi elena108108,

Both questions are grammatically correct, and they have different meanings.

The first question is in the past simple. It refers to a past time that is finished, e.g. Did you eat anything interesting when you went to China last year / in 2018? 

The second question is in the present perfect. This is used for unfinished time periods. If you ask Have you eaten anything interesting in China?, the person you are speaking to is probably in China right now, i.e. the time period for the action continues up to and includes the present moment. (The past simple question, on the other hand, probably means that the person you are speaking to is not in China any more, i.e. that time period is now finished.)

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by amit_ck on Fri, 29/01/2021 - 07:01

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What does Lean Toward mean? I have looked up some online dictionaries but they aren't comprehensible to me. Could you please give me some examples of it?

Hi amit_ck,

Lean means to move your head or the top part of your body closer to something. Your legs and feet stay in the same place. Towards shows the direction of the movement (i.e. what you are going to reach or touch). Here are some examples.

  • He leaned towards her because he couldn't hear her clearly.
  • If I cannot see the computer screen clearly, I lean towards the screen.

 

Apart from that physical meaning, lean towards is also used figuratively, with a similar meaning: to move towards something in your feelings, interests or preferences.

For example:

  • I haven't decided which university to apply to yet, but I'm leaning towards New University.
  • The designers usually lean towards bright, bold colours.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yash on Sat, 19/12/2020 - 14:42

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Hello, Can someone explain to me why "I'm sorry, WERE you WAITING for me" is a polite expression instead of something real in the past because I'm sorry isn't highlighted but the WERE and WAITING are. Doesn't this mean that we should answering considering those 2 words instead of I'm sorry?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 20/12/2020 - 08:13

In reply to by Yash

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Hello Yash,

The speaker here has a choice. They could say either of these:

'...were you waiting for me?'

'...are you waiting for me?'

Both are grammatically correct, and so we cannot say that the action is in the past.

The past form is less direct and this makes it a little more polite. Obviously, saying 'I'm sorry' adds further politeness.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Fiona on Mon, 30/11/2020 - 12:55

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Hi, Why in Wikipedia pages we change verb from “is” to “was” when a person dies? Like Ernest Hemingway “was” a novelist. He does not write in a period of his lifetime and quit after that, so why shouldn’t we use “is” after his death?
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 30/11/2020 - 17:51

In reply to by Fiona

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Hello Fiona,

There are times when we do use the present simple to talk about the past, but in a text from an encyclopedia, the general style is to use the past to speak about a person who is no longer alive.

I'm not sure if I've answered your question, so please ask again if you have any other doubts about this.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk, Thanks for answering, but I do still have something hope you can clarify for me. My concern is that, novelist seems to be an general description, a status may not be changed if a person dies or not. If I say, “Hemingway was a journalist in his 20’s”, I may think of it as he once was a journalist, but had something else for making a living afterwards. Other similar examples would be like “Einstein was a physicist”, or “Mozart was a musician”, which seem to be general facts for me. So I was wondering why we don’t use present tense in these circumstances. Thanks for answering.

Hello again Fiona,

I can see what you mean, but I'm afraid that using the present tense to talk about Einstein, Mozart or Hemingway would be non-standard in most situations in English. I say 'most situations' because maybe there is some very specific one where it would work, but I can't think of one.

In some other Indo-European languages (for example, Spanish or Catalan), a present tense can be used in the way you suggest, but in English it isn't. I might suggest you think of the present simple as a tense for things that are always true (e.g. the sun is a star, winter begins in June in Argentina, etc.) rather than as for general facts, which is a category that's a bit too wide I think.

By the way, it is possible to use the present tense in English to speak about past events when you are telling a story or summarising something you have heard, read or seen (e.g. a film). Note that in both cases, the speaker is showing a kind of personal perspective, and so this wouldn't be appropriate for speaking about historical figures in most contexts.

Hope this clarifies it for you, but don't hesitate to ask again if you have any other questions.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

The more I teach English, the sorrier I feel for its learners. Fiona: as Kirk says, we do say Hemingway "was" a novelist, because once he is dead he is no longer a novelist: he does not exist. But as Kirk suspected, "maybe there is some very specific [situation] where "was" would work, but I can't think of one." Interestingly, I would say "Hemingway **is** my favourite author" [he isn't, actually; I hate him!] because my **liking** of him occurs in present time. It would take several thousand words of philosophical abstraction to unpick this, but trust me: If I said "Mozart was my favourite composer", the implication would plainly be that he is no longer. Mozart was a great composer. Mozart is my favourite composer.

Hello Peter,

I think you're being a little harsh on the English language here! It is quite logical, but it's important to approach the meaning in the right way. This means not focusing on the action of the verb but rather the time frame in which it occurs. For example:

Cormack McCarthy wrote novels in his 20s.

The past tense is used here not because the action is no longer true - Cormack McCarthy is still writing novels, after all. However, we have a closed (finished) time reference and so the action is complete in that sense.

When the time reference is not closed, we use a present tense:

Cormack McCarthy has been writing novels since his 20s.

Cormack McCarthy is a novelist.

 

On the other hand, when no time reference is given, the past tense indicates that the action itself is complete and no longer current, while the present tense indicates that the action is still true:

Cormack McCarthy lived in Tennessee.

Cormack McCarthy lives in New Mexico.

Thus, as you say, 'Mozart was my favourite composer' would mean that something has changed and Mozart is no longer your favourite. On the other hand, if you include a finished past time reference then it could still be true:

Mozart was my favourite composer when I was a student, and he's still my favourite composer today.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 27/10/2020 - 18:24

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Hello. Which one is correct? - Now fewer children and mothers have health problems than they (had - did) 100 years ago. Thank you

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The correct form is 'had' because the verb here is 'have'. We say 'have health problems' not 'do'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 21/10/2020 - 00:05

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Hello. Could you help me clear my confusion? Which one is correct? Why? 1- I'd rather Tom slept than (watch - watched) TV. 2- I'd rather Tom had slept than (watch - watched - had watched) TV yesterday. Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

This is a bit complicated but I'll try to explain! Let's start with the most likely options.

  • I'd rather Tom slept than watched TV.
  • I'd rather Tom had slept than had watched TV yesterday.
  • I'd rather Tom had slept than watched TV yesterday.

In these sentences, the second verb is done by Tom. Notice that the second verb is in the same tense as the first verb (e.g. slept and watched - past simple). This is because if a speaker offers two options for an activity, as in these examples, they are almost certainly in the same timeframe. 

The third example above uses just watched, but it's still the past perfect tense. That's because it follows had slept (past perfect). There's no need to repeat the auxiliary verb had.

Below are some meanings that are less likely, but are still grammatically possible.

  • I'd rather Tom slept than watch TV.
  • I'd rather Tom had slept than watch TV yesterday.

These two sentences have a different meaning. Watch can follow I'd rather (= I'd rather watch). So in these sentences, watch TV means the speaker (not Tom) watching TV. For example, in the first sentence, the speaker prefers that Tom slept instead of the speaker him/herself watching TV.

So, overall, all the options are grammatically correct - but the first group of examples are the most likely meanings. Does that make sense?

We try to answer questions as quickly as we can. At busy times it may take a little longer :)

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

1 - Watch, because we are talking about something that is happening right now. 2 - Watched, because the word "yesterday" indicates that we are talking about the past. We don't say had watched because we already said "had" in "Tom HAD slept".

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