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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Average: 4 (178 votes)

Submitted by melvinthio on Mon, 05/02/2024 - 16:37

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Hi Jonathan,
Thanks so much for your super clear explanation.
I give you below the complete paragraph written in my book :
Quote :
A) He had served in the army for ten years; then he retired and married.
His children were now at school.

Note : If we put the last verb in this sentence into the present tense, the other tenses will change to the simple past :

B) He served in the army for ten years; then he retired and married. His children are now at school.
Unquote.

Questions :
1) From the whole paragraph above, would you interpret that the use of "were now" in A refers to the past, or to "currently/at this present moment" just like "are now" in B ?

2) If "were now" in A bears the same meaning as "are now" in B (meaning "currently"), I think we can change "were" in A to "are", but why do the authors give a special note saying that if we change "were" in A with "are", the past perfect will change to the past tense ? What is the reason?

Jonathan, please help me clarify this issue. I'd appreciate your detailed explanation.

Best regards,

Hi melvinthio,

1) Yes, I still think "were now" is describing the past. The meaning of "now" in this example is "used in stories or reports of past events to describe a new situation or event" (source: Cambridge Dictionary - note the emphasis on past events).

2) As mentioned above, I don't think it has the same meaning as "are now". The books seems to be changing the verb into the present tense just as an exercise, or to illustrate how verb tense choices are connected to other ones within the same text. It isn't trying to say that the meaning stays the same.

About the use of the past perfect in A) but not in B). The reason is that A's focal time is the past (as shown by "were now") and B's focal time is the present ("are now"). It is grammatically possible to use the past perfect "had served in the army" in B) as well - however, then there would be four verbs (had served / retired and married / are now) moving from past perfect to past to present in very quick succession. This would make the timeframe of the narrative jump forward very quickly from the past to the present, and this is not conventionally done.

Additionally, when it is logically obvious that one past action happened before the other (e.g. ""had served in the army" must logically happen before "retired"), people often simplify the past perfect to the past simple.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by melvinthio on Sat, 03/02/2024 - 10:54

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Hi Peter,
Thanks for your reply.
I've noticed the following example in my grammar book published by OUP:

"He had served in the army for ten years; then he retired and married. His children were now at school".

Questions:
1) Is it grammatically correct if we replace "were" with "are" in the last sentence (His children are now at school) ?

2) If yes, which one sounds more natural using "are" or "were" ?

3) From the point of grammar, if we write a past story, apart from using the past perfect tense, should we put all the other verbs into the past tense as a default to be consistent although for situations still true in the present ?

I'd highly appreciate your detailed explanation.

Best regards,

Hi melvinthio,

I'll try to help. 

1) Yes, it is. However, "His children are now at school" is about the present. I suspect that "His children were now at school" is about the past, even though it says "now". The word "now" is sometimes used in past narratives to show a jump forward in the focal time of the narrative, or highlight a change in circumstances, as in this example which jumps forward from his time in the army to the time of his retirement and marriage (still in the past). 

2) Both sound natural but as explained above, their meanings differ.

3) Generally, yes. Especially if you are writing a factual and objective past story, this would be the norm. However, story writing may not follow fixed rules like this, so that story writers can convey their ideas to the reader better. For example, story writers commonly use present tenses for story events in order to give the reader a stronger sense of how the character is experiencing and reacting (see Present tense, advanced level section for an example of this), even though those story events happened in the past in the overall timeframe.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by melvinthio on Thu, 25/01/2024 - 06:40

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Hi Peter,
Thanks for your explanation.
For my previous two sentences (in 2a and 2b) in the past tense : "there were 3 children in my family" and "my parents had 3 children", I assume they can be used if I tell a past story. e.g.
"When we were kids, my parents worked very hard as there were 3 children in our family. They had 3 children while our neighbours had only one or two".

(1) Is it right to use the two sentences in the past tense in the above story ?

(2) In your previous answer to my 2a question, you said "If you say 'There are....' then the listener would understand that all are still alive".
Interestingly, I noticed that you used "would" in the first conditional sentence.
Please help explain in what situation we can use this type of mixed conditional (the use of "WOULD" in the first conditional) and if possible, please give me some more examples to help me get it more clearly.

I'd highly appreciate your detailed explanations.
Best regards,

Hello melvinthio,

(1) Yes, that's fine. Your example is correct.

 

(2) It's not a standard form, I'm afraid. Native speakers sometimes mix up forms in non-standard ways and this is a sentence which, strictly speaking, is not internally consistent. A better construction would be If you said... a listener would...

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by melvinthio on Tue, 23/01/2024 - 12:52

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Hi Peter,
I've seen the following sentence :
- His father was the second of four
children in his family (The use of the past is due to the fact that they're not children anymore now).

My questions:

(1) Can we say this sentence although his father is still alive ?

I have two siblings in my family. We're all adults now and my parents are still alive.

(2) In this case, which one should I say ? Or either the past or the present is grammatically correct ?

a) There were (or are) 3 children in my family.

b) My parents had (or have) 3 children.

I'd appreciate your clear explanation.
Thanks.
Best regards,

Hi melvinthio,

1) Yes, you can say the sentence even though the father is still alive. As you say, he is no longer a child so the sentence past makes sense, though the present is also possible.

 

2) a) If you say 'There were' then the implication is that this is no longer true. The listener might infer that one of your siblings died, for example. If you say 'There are' then the listener would understand that all are still alive.

2) b) Both are possible. 'Had' might mean that the parents died; 'have' makes it clear that they are still alive.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Thu, 30/11/2023 - 06:46

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Hello The LearnEnglish Team,
The selfish giant by Oscar wilde..
Suddenly he rubbed his eyes in wonder and looked and looked.
It certainly was a marvellous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were golden, and silver fruit hung down from them, and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved.
Could you explain why the author has used hung down and stood instead of were hanging and was standing the little boy? Would it be incorrect to use past continuous tense though I think the action was in progress at that time?
Jitu_jaga

Hello jitu_jaga,

The simple tenses here suggest that this character views this scene not so much something that is in progress, but as more of a static scene, almost as if it were the background of a painting.

Though please note that I say this without having read either before or after this extract -- my analysis might change if I did read the full context.

The speaker's perspective and intentions are key in the choice of verb forms.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Hello blaky,

The negative form of have is didn't have. We normally use hadn't (or haven't) only when it is an auxiliary verb and part of a longer verb phrase such as a perfect form.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by hanieh1315 on Sat, 03/06/2023 - 14:42

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Hi , i hope you feeling well. Why we use past perfect here after which why we can’t use simple present?

That this type of writing represents a kind pf literary genre is a point which some critics had failed to notice

Hello hanieh1315,

You can use the simple past here (...some critic failed to notice) as well as the past perfect (...some critics had failed to notice). The past perfect emphasises that the critics failure to notice ended - presumably at a time made clear by the broader context. In other words, the critics did not notice only up until a particular point, and after that they did notice.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by _Chris_ on Tue, 28/02/2023 - 20:20

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Hi, could you please explain to me which one of these following sentences is grammatically correct:

1. She worked there for five years but was fired last week.
2. She had been working there for five years but was fired last week.
3. She had worked there for five years but was fired last week.

I presume that it has something to do with conveying the emphasis in each sentence, but I'm not entirely sure what the actual difference is.

Hello _Chris_,

All three of those are grammatically correct, though the situations we'd use them in are different.

There are so many possibilities here that I can't describe them all, and the differences between the situations are so general it's also difficult to say something useful. But, for example, 1 could be used in lots of situations; it's quite neutral. If I had to choose one of these three on a test, this is the one I'd choose, though I'd also want to ask whoever wrote the test what their thinking was to be sure.

If you can give us any more context for this, perhaps we can explain it better. You're also welcome to propose contexts for each of the three sentences and we can comment on how you see them if you'd like.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by SaadBinSiyad2008 on Mon, 27/02/2023 - 17:04

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Could you send some points we must keep in mind while attempting questions related to past and present tenses...
Any helpful tips which are useful for scoring 100% in grammar...

Hello SaadBinSiyad2008,

I'm afraid we don't provide long general explanations of grammar points -- for that kind of thing, please see the explanations on our different pages. I'd also recommend trying the exercises and finding out where your weak points are so that you can improve on them.

We're happy to help with specific questions about our explanations or exercises, so please don't hesitate to ask us any of those types of questions.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Fri, 26/08/2022 - 23:15

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Hi Petet, Kirk and Jonathan,
When I was a child, I lived in France.
Would it be incorrect if I wrote was living in France. Please clarify.
.

Hello y jitu_jaga,

Both forms are possible. The simple form (wrote) suggests that you lived permanently in France - it was your home, at least for a time, and you did not consider it temporary. The continuous form (was living) suggests that you saw it as temporary - you knew that you were going to leave. In other words, it's really a question of how the speaker saw the situation, not a question of fact.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 07/06/2022 - 11:52

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Hello Team. Could you please help me? In the following sentence, which tense is the correct one or both? Why?
- First, my brother (got- had got) a visa. Then, he booked a flight to Canada.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I'd choose 'got' here because the two sentences are clearly narrating a sequence of actions ('first', 'then'). In such cases, we normally use the past simple.

It's possible to use 'had got' in a similar situation ('My brother had got a visa before booking his flight'), but in most cases the past simple is probably best. It really depends on the rest of the situation and the meaning intended, which I can't really speculate about here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

 

Submitted by Alaa El Baddini on Wed, 25/05/2022 - 23:38

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

Hello Alaa El Baddini,

As I said on another page, 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 Anhle on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 17:45

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I wish I heard information soon.
I could learning well if I really tried.
If I had started 1 year ago I would have a good job.
I wonder if these sentences are right ?

Hi Anhle,

Let me make some suggestions.

  1. The meaning isn't clear for me. If you say this because you want somebody to send you the information, it should be --> "I hope to hear from you soon". If you want to tell somebody that you will get the information soon, it should be --> "I hope to get the information soon."
  2. Looks good but it should be --> "I could learn well ...". After "could", use the base verb form (not the -ing form).
  3. Looks good but it's not clear what "started" means. It could be, for example, "If I had started looking for a job one year ago, I would have a good job now".

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello ,
During summer i stayed in a hotel.
During summer i was staying in a hotel.
which one is correct and why?
And is "stay" a state verb?

Hello jitu_jaga,

Both the past simple ('I stayed') and the past continuous ('I was staying') are possible here, but we would say one or the other depending on the situation or the meaning we want to convey. It's difficult to explain much more to you because there are so many different reasons that one or the other form would be better that I can't explain them all. Did you have a specific situation in mind?

If not, I'd suggest reading the explanations on the pages I linked to. We're also happy to try to explain a more specific situation if you can tell us more about it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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.
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore 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