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.

Average
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Submitted by latha.- on Mon, 07/08/2023 - 11:53

What is the meaning of "has meant" Does it refer to present effect?

Hello latha.-,

Could you please give us the context for this verb form? It's hard to explain without knowing how it's being used.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Khoshal on Thu, 20/07/2023 - 13:02

Hi teacher,
Could you explain why we have used ‘watch instead of watched’ in the following example:
Most evenings, we used to stay at home and watch DVDs.

Hi Khoshal,

It's because "watch" continues the structure "used to" from earlier in the sentence.

The word "and" joins two verbs together, and the verbs should have the same form as each other. For example:

• We used to stay at home and watch DVDs.
(Structure = used to (verb 1) and (verb 2). Verbs 1 and 2 are both in the infinitive form. Meaning = We used to stay at home and we used to watch ...)

• We stayed at home and watched DVDs.
(Structure = We + (verb 1) and (verb 2). Both verbs are in the past simple)

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by latha.- on Mon, 17/07/2023 - 04:39

Is would +have +past participle used to express guesses about the past?

Hi latha.-,

Here are some examples.

I phoned at six o'clock. I knew he would have got home by then.
It was half past five. Dad would have finished work.

I wouldn't call these "guesses", because a guess may be based on little or no knowledge. These sentences are more like "expectations" based on the speaker's knowledge, and the speakers seem relatively certain of them.

You may be interested in the examples and information on our page about "will have" and "would have" (linked). I hope it's useful to you.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Tue, 10/01/2023 - 00:17

Hello!

I've heard when using indirect speech we might say, for example "He said that he has a car" if we are sure that he still have it. Does it refer to the Future in the Past, i. e., could I say "I understood it is difficult" (not it was difficult) if I'm talking about some current situation which I still consider to be difficult?

Thank you very much for your huge help and I am grateful for answering this question beforehand!

Hi howtosay_,

Those sentences are all grammatically fine and their meaning is clear. But these are not examples of Future in the Past. That is when there are two actions, and both occurred in the past. Also, the focus is on the time of one past action, but it looks forward to another action that would happen later on (though still in the past).

For example: "He thought he would buy one the next day." Both actions (thought / would buy) are in the past. The time focus is on "thought". From that time, "would buy" happens afterwards, so it is in the future with reference to "thought" (although both actions occurred in the past).

So, "He said that he has a car" is not future in the past, because "he has a car" is not in the past. "He said that he had a car" is also not future in the past, because we understand that he had the car at the time that he said it (not after he said it). However, a sentence like "He said that he would buy a car" is future in the past.

I hope that helps to understand it.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Jonathan!

Thank you so much for your help!!! It seems that now I understand that Future in the Past refers to either action or plan, but not just realization and ideas. Could I ask you to clarify if "I understood it is difficult" (if diffultties are entwined with the current situation) sounds correct?

Hello howtosay_

Yes, that is correct. You could say this when, for example, someone told you that a situation was difficult and this situation is still on-going. It means you understood it was difficult in the past and suggests that you still understand it's difficult now.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aquavit on Mon, 17/10/2022 - 20:16

Hello! I recently submitted this question via webform and was kindly redirected here. While whether this qualifies as a /verb/ question is something I am still unsure of, but nowhere more suitable could be found. The following is copied and pasted from the original question.

Hello, I recently came across the following sentence:

<Heavy snow made the roof collapsed>

The grammatical justification provided was that 1), in a SVOOC-type sentence, when an object takes a verb-based component as an object complement it /must/ be a past participle, and 2), causatives especially take past participles due to passivity, and since in this case the roof is collapsed by an external force, using 'collapsed' is correct in the same way we can say 'I had my shoes shined'.

Though the explanations seem logical I cannot for the life of me wrap my illogical head around the fact that 'made the roof collapsed' is correct instead of 'made the roof collapse'. Is 'make' really used in exactly the same way as 'let', 'get' and 'have' (with only a difference in force)? Am I anthropomorphising the cold, unfeeling roof, bestowing upon its shingles sentience it does not possess?

It would be also greatly appreciated if you could point me to academic resources (books, websites, papers, anything) that could help.

Thank you very much.

Hi Aquavit,

It's an interesting example. I would understand "collapsed" in this sentence as an adjective complement of "the roof", in the same way as e.g. "happy" and "tired" in She made him happy or Working makes me tired. However, I agree with you that it sounds quite unusual, and made the roof collapse would be much more likely (it is also grammatical). It still means that the snow was the cause of the collapse (rather than any volition or cooperation from the roof) .

Sorry, I'm not aware of any particular resources on this point.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks you so much ma'am/sir, i was quite confused about the usage of past simple, past continuous and past perfect, but your examples and narration completely made my thoughts clear. A lot of greetings for your contribution.. Again thanks.🙆

Submitted by Alaa El Baddini on Wed, 25/05/2022 - 23:36

When she got home, she realized that while she ….. someone has stolen her wallet!
B. Was working

I'm afraid we don't provide answers for questions from other sources. We're happy to explain points of grammar or answer other questions about the language, but if we began simply giving answers to tasks we would end up doing our users' homework and tests for them, which is not our job!

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mariancs on Wed, 24/11/2021 - 18:45

Hi,thank you for this great information. I really found it concise and interesting. I got a question about future in the past. If I want to use in this sentence:

"The train departs at 10 pm, so we have to hurry up"

This sentence is in present simple because is for a timetabled event, but let's suppose that later i said in future in the past:

"The train departed at 10 pm, so we had to hurry up"

Is this correct? because now i get confused if this new sentence is only past simple, or is still in future in the past. With was going to and would i get it, but with past tense i get confussed.

Thank you for your time and warm grettings ;)

Hi mariancs,

Yes, the sentence is correct. Yes, it can be understood future in the past, if we take the focal time of the sentence as "we had to hurry up". "The train departed at 10 pm" is in the future, from the point of view of that focal time. This timeframe might be easier to see if we expand the context:

-- "We we busy packing our bags and preparing some snacks for the journey. It would take us 30 minutes to get to the station, and we still weren't ready. The train departed at 10 pm, so we had to hurry up."

Alternatively, if the focal time is "The train departed at 10 pm", then it isn't future in the past. It's just a past event. Here's another example in context:

-- "The train was supposed to depart at 9:30, but there was a delay. In the end, the train departed at 10 pm, so we had to hurry up when we arrived at our destination."

So, it's possible to interpret this sentence in two ways, which might be the reason for the confusion. To resolve it, look at the full context in which it is used, and identify the timeframe.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Would you please clarify, are the following sentences correct —
1. My mother wanted to know whom I had called the previous night.
2. My mother said to me,“ who had you called last night ?”
3. My mother said to me,“ who have you called last night ?”

As we know in the sentence 1 'the previous night' is used so the original sentence (i.e. direct speech) past tense should be used .
So in my opinion the correct direct speech of sentence 1 is sentence 2
But I'm also a bit confused about sentence 3

Hi abhay,

I think it should be --> My mother said to me, "Who did you call last night?"

In sentence 1, had called (past perfect) is used to show that this action took place earlier than the other past action (wanted to know). However, in direct speech, only one action is actually said by the speaker. The other action (wanted to know) is in the reporting clause, not in the direct speech itself. So, there is no reason for the speaker to use past perfect in the direct speech. Instead, it should be past simple (Who did you call ...?).

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by camilless on Wed, 17/11/2021 - 01:36

Hello, I found this very informative, but I was left with a question about the following structure still: When he next visited, it would happen again. Is this a prediction about something that will still happen? Or, because of would + verb, does it become something in the past that may not come to be anymore? Is it syntatically correct? Which tense is it and which meaning is it conveying?

Thank you

Hello camilless,

This looks like a prediction in the past (future in the past) but it's hard to say without knowing the context in which it is used. For example, you might use it in a narrative when a character is looking ahead to something later in the story:

'They had argued from the very beginning of his visit, and he was sure that when he next visited it would happen again.'

'Would' is a modal verb so tense is not an issue.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by vanshh03 on Wed, 17/03/2021 - 21:43

Talking about the past. What do these sentences mean? 1- She was going to be lost whichever road she took. 2- She was lost whichever road she had taken.

Helo vanshh03,

The first sentence is a prediction in the past about what comes next. We might use this in a narrative, for example, where events are related using past tenses and we want to look ahead in the story.

The second sentence describes a current (in the story) result (lost) of a past action (had taken). In this context, the choice of road has already happened but it had no effect on whether or not she was lost; this was inevitable.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by TheCrilon on Wed, 03/03/2021 - 19:49

Hi. The description when to use past simple/used to/would seems to me as quite misleading one here. The only case when "would/used to" should be used is to describe an action happened several times in the past, as per this article. Immediately after introducing would/used to, there is an example: "We used to feel very cold in winter." How is it possible to feel cold several times? As for me that doesn't make any sense. You are either cold or not. There can't be any times of being cold. Another one from the exercise bellow: "From 1924 to 1991, Saint Petersburg had a different name. It was called/used to be called Leningrad." From 1924 to 1991 is some time in the past. Which verb/tense according to this article we have to use when we something "was true for some time in the past"? Right. Past simple. And only past simple. Why used to is also right answer here? "I loved/used to love chocolate when I was younger, but now I hardly ever eat it." And again. There is no mentioning of "several times in the past". How is it even possible to love several times? Why is used to a correct option here?

Hi TheCrilon,

The explanation above says:

• When we talk about something that happened several times in the past, we use the past simple or 'used to' or 'would'.

But this is not to say that is the only meaning these words have. That might be the source of the confusion.

About the We used to feel very cold in winter example, the previous sentence (i.e. the sentence that introduces it) says:

• We do not normally use 'would' with stative verbs. We use the past simple or 'used to' instead.

You’re right that 'feel very cold' here does not mean feeling cold several times. It's a state, so that's why the previous sentence mentions stative verbs. The other examples you mention about Saint Petersburg and chocolate are also states (i.e. they have stative verbs 'be called' and 'love').

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi TheCrilon,

No problem :) Thanks for visiting our site.

This page is titled 'Talking about the past' because it presents past meanings (e.g. Past events and situations; The past in the past) and forms you can use for those meanings. In other words, the page is primarily organised by past meaning – not by form. It doesn't aim to present each form (i.e. past simple, 'used to', 'would') and list all of the meanings it has. For a form-by-form explanation, you may like to refer to this page on Past habits – 'used to', 'would' and the past simple.

The explanation you quoted from another resource is a good one! You can find a similar explanation on our page that I linked above.

About the Saint Petersburg example, yes – this is something that was true for some time in the past. But the sentence also contains the stative verb 'be (called)', so the guidance on the page about stative verbs is also relevant: We do not normally use 'would' with stative verbs. We use the past simple or 'used to' instead. When referring to the past, all stative verbs have the 'true for some time' meaning.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aria rousta on Wed, 25/11/2020 - 21:30

Dear Kirk First of all thank you for your reply. Base on what i learnt from different grammar books, and as you mentioned this structure most of times is used to show past possibility that not happened. But it also can be use to express our certainty for example; oh, John it's three and half o'clock,the match between ManU and Chelsee will have started by now. In this example speaker base on his previous information getting from news, reached to level of certainty that believes the match surely have started. In this situation the usage of may or must+have pp seems to not convey the speaker's concept. Several other example can be put forward like, as you will have noticed by now your teacher has changed his glasses. Like these two examples we sometimes use would have pp to express our certaninty which is out of coverage of may and must have pp structure. In this structure our level of certaintuy places way above may or might and a little bit lesser than must, but none of these two can play the exact role of "would". Would have pp reflects very high probability from speaker's point of view. For example; my parents were not so passionate with me, i always thought they would have prefered to have a girl rather than a boy. Please guide me, thank you

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 26/11/2020 - 17:02

In reply to by aria rousta

Hello aria rousta,

I wouldn't call the uses of 'will have' and 'would have' that you mention 'guesses', but rather as 'deductions' or 'suppositions'. As you say, they express a greater degree of certainty than do 'might have' or 'may have'. I suppose that one could call statements made with 'will have' and 'would have' as 'guesses', but that's not what I meant, and I'm sorry if this caused you any confusion.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aria rousta on Mon, 23/11/2020 - 11:33

Dear sir Regarding "would have+ pp", i guess this structure can use to reflect some kind of our geuss or possibility in the past. For example this sentence; "the ancient discovered statue would have belonged to on of Romen's god." . From my point of view it would be meaningless if we interpret it as a something possible in the past but not happend. Please guide me and if there is more contents in this respect, let me know where i can find them.thank you

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Tue, 24/11/2020 - 08:14

In reply to by aria rousta

Hello aria rousta,

'would have' + past participle usually speaks about something that did not happen, but which could have happened if, for example, the situation had been different.

In English, we don't use 'would have' + past participle to speak about a guess about something in the past -- instead we use 'might have' (or 'may have') + past participle. For example, if I saw a man yesterday that I thought was your brother, I could say 'The man might have been your brother' to express this idea. Notice that we are making this guess in the present, but it's speaking about the past.

If I see an ancient statue and think it is a statue of a Roman god, I'd typically say something like 'This statue might be of a Roman god' or, if I feel fairly confident that it is of a Roman god, 'This status must be of a Roman god'.

I'd suggest you have a look at our Modals – deductions about the past and Modals – deductions about the present pages.

I hope this helps you make more sense of it. Please let us know if you have any other questions.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Rikimaru on Mon, 29/06/2020 - 14:11

Hello, I don't quite understand what the word "happened" means. If we say that something (for example an action) happened/occurred in the past, does this mean that this action commenced and finished in the past? Meaning to say (a) "happened (aka occurred)" = commenced and finished, or does (b) "happened (aka occurred)" just mean that the action commenced in the past but gives no indication that the action also completed in the past? which meaning (a) or (b) is correct?

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 29/06/2020 - 16:03

Hello rikimaru

I think that your question is more about the past simple form (in this case, 'happened' or 'occurred') than about the verbs 'happen' or 'occur', but if I have misunderstood you, please correct me.

The past simple refers to an action that began and finished in the past. Beyond this, it is quite indefinite -- for example, it could refer to 6 billion years ago or it could refer to just moments ago.

Other verb forms (e.g. 'was happening', 'had happened', 'has happened') have different meanings, but I don't think these are what you are asking about. If I am wrong, however, please let us know.

Hope this helps.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

My question is about both, I think. So firstly, simple past tense simply refers to an action or event which happened (i.e. began and ended) in the past, correct? Secondly, "happened" equals "began and ended"? Thirdly, if I say something happened, by default, it means this thing started and ended in the past? What then if I say something happened at a specific time, like at 6.30 pm (i.e. something happened at 6.30pm), does it then mean that this thing started and ended at 6.30pm, or just that this thing started at 6.30pm but no clear indication of when it ended (in other words, does "happened" encompass both the start and end of the action, or just the start)?

Hello Rikimaru,

I'd say that the past simple is the default tense we use to speak about the past -- the other tenses include additional information about the event that the past simple generally doesn't.

As far as I understand it, a past simple verb always refers to an action that began in the past, though that action isn't necessarily finished yet. For example, in the Wikipedia entry for 'Big Bang', the second sentence reads:

The model describes how the universe expanded from an initial state of extremely high density and high temperature, and offers a comprehensive explanation for a broad range of observed phenomena, including the abundance of light elements, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, and large-scale structure.

Note the word 'expanded' -- here the expansion clearly began in the past, but, as far as I understand it, the universe is still expanding and is expected to continue to do so for quite some time. Here this past simple form clearly refers to an event that is not finished.

I'm sorry if my earlier comment, in which I said that the past simple refers to 'an action that began and ended in the past', was confusing in this regard. I often explain the past simple this way when comparing it to other past forms (e.g. the past continuous), but it can be misleading to say it that way.

As for your third point, the past simple in itself doesn't specify the duration of the event. We generally rely on common understandings of how actions occur or use other verb forms or adverbials to specify such things, but usually only if it's necessary to do so.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by vsm on Thu, 25/06/2020 - 11:12

Hi, Is it OK to use present tense to describe objects that existed in the past? Example: Assume, for this example, that bullock carts don't exist nowadays but they were used a few decades ago. Is it OK to describe them as following using present tense in sentences? Bullock cart has two wheels that move around an axle. It is usually pulled by two oxen. However, there are bullock carts that use only one ox. Most of the bullock cart is made of wood. Or, should I use past tense as following? Bullock cart had two wheels that moved around an axle. It was usually pulled by two oxen. However, there were bullock carts that used only one ox. Most of the bullock cart was made of wood.

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 25/06/2020 - 18:58

Hello vsm

Yes, you can use present tense forms like this, though past tense forms are also commonly used. Which is more appropriate depends on your purpose and perspective. If it were for an encyclopedia entry, for example, I'd suggest looking at some available online to how they use the tenses there.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sidra_ on Fri, 24/04/2020 - 08:52

Hello! We say, ' The rabbit has been caught', why we use "been"? It could also be like this, The rabbit has caught.

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sat, 25/04/2020 - 07:30

Hello again Sidra_

'has been caught' is the verb 'catch' in the present perfect; it is also a passive verb here. It means that someone or something has caught the rabbit. If you say 'The rabbit caught' it means the rabbit got something, e.g. 'The rabbit caught the cricket'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Praveen on Mon, 06/04/2020 - 07:28

Dear Kirk Is it correct to use the phrase "Rabbit is caught" Thanks

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 06/04/2020 - 08:40

Hello Praveen

What's the context?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by dipakrgandhi on Mon, 25/11/2019 - 13:51

sir-this is regarding reported speech : I remember you answering to one of my questions about reported speech of past continuous and then you said that we can keep the past continuous as it is and no need to in back to past perfect continuous. I don't remember that sentence. But on your reported speech page you ask us to change past continuous to past perfect. Would you help me understand when can we keep past continuous as it is without changing it to past perfect continuous. Regards Dipak Gandhi

Hello Dipak Gandhi

In general, the rule on our reported speech page is true, i.e. in general, you should change past continuous to past perfect in reported speech. I don't remember the specific sentence you asked about in another comment, but I suppose it was a specific situation in which an exception to that general rule was possible.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Slava B on Thu, 17/10/2019 - 23:26

Неllo again,Team! Your example : "He broke his leg when he was playing rugby", - if we replaced 'he was plaing' by 'he played' , ' He broke his leg when he played rugby', how would that change the meaning of the sentence ? Would this mean,for example, that he broke his leg in one of the games which he played in the past?, Or maybe I again overcomplicate these things?

Hello Slava B,

Both forms are possible, but there is a difference in meaning.

If we use the continuous form (was playing) then we mean that the accident happened during a game.

If we use the simple form (played) then we only know that the accident happened during the period of his life when he was a rugby player. Of course, we might expect that it took place during a game because of the context, but the sentence does not explicity tell us that.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tanusha on Sun, 15/09/2019 - 21:45

Hello! Could someone, please, explain to me: how we use future tenses when the narration is about the past. Eg: (autobiography: He was born [...] then he marries [...] he will become [a writer]. Other words can we use past, present, and future in a narrative and what are the rules except those mentioned in the article. Is it possible for fiction literature. Thank you!

Hellp Tanusha,

There are several ways to talk about the future in the past - in other words, looking forward from a position in the past, as is often done in biographies. You could use 'would', for example:

Paul will be a great writer. [future prediction]

Even at school, everyone knew Paul would be a great writer. [future in the past]

Similar forms exist using going to (is going to > was going to) and the present continuous for future reference (is verbing > was verbing).

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by 1Esmaa1 on Sat, 22/06/2019 - 23:22