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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Comments

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

Hello:) I’m still unable to use the present perfect and the simple past properly even though my answers to these exercises were correct. For instance, I don’t know whether saying “I have sat for the exams, but I didn’t do well on all of them” is more correct than saying “I have sat for the exams, but I haven’t done well on all of them.” Shouldn’t both verbs be in the present perfect?

Hello 1Esmaa1

Learning the differences between these two tenses is indeed a challenge, so be patient with yourself. In this case, and in others, both cases can be correct. Which one is better depends on how the speaker sees the situation. Generally speaking, if you use the present perfect, you see the action as somehow touching the present moment. For example, imagine you are sitting at the table looking at the exam results and are feeling disappointed. In this case, you might use the present perfect since the results are affecting you in that moment.

You could also use the past simple, however, and this might make more sense if you felt some kind of distance from your exam results -- it could express that you feel as if there's nothing you can do about the exams or that you want to forget them.

Does that help you make sense of it a little more?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello.

I don't know why, but I'm not findings as much as satisfaction in learning German as I ....... when I started the program.

1. had done 2. have done 3. did 4. was doing

past continuous when simple past
simple past when simple past
past perfect when simple past

Hello amirfd,
I'm afraid we don't provide answers to questions like this. We're happy to explain the information on our own pages, or to answer more general questions about the English language where possible, but we don't provide an answer service for questions from elsewhere. If we did, soon we would end up doing users' homework for them!
~
I can tell you to look at the time relationships in the sentence. You have two times here: present ('I'm not finding') and past ('when I started'). You need to decide when the third action happens: before the past action or at the same time as/after the past action.
~
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter.
It's not my homework. Thank you.

I like this grammar!

Hello.I ask two question that i tried to figure out. One is: "A recent study, *was published which in the British Dental Journal, *focuses on a comperative analysis of the skulls of modern day people and two sets of older skulls." I think it should have been "is published" and "has focused" words after *. Why not? How can we use past tense and present tense together in one sentence. Thank you.

Hello baburbb,

The act of publishing was in the past. It is one act which is done at a particular moment, so the past tense is used.

The study itself has an ongoing existence and so we use a present tense to describe what it does/says/claims etc.

 

If you had a different verb than 'publish' you might use a present form. For example:

A recent study can be read in the British...

A recent study which is available in the British..

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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