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Talking about the past

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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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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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.

Present perfect and past simple 1

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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

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

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 Johathan! First off, thank you very much for replying. I like the work you guys are doing here. The articles are very helpful.
Back to topic. Okay if "several times in the past" is not the only signal to use "used to" may be it's worth to add other use cases to this article?
As for me the following sentence
"We do not normally use would with stative verbs. We use the past simple or used to instead"
Doesn't actually describe when to use "used to" well enough. I find the following explanation on another resource:
"'Used to' is good for any action or situation that continued for a period of time in the past, including repeated actions or situations." And this explanation puts everything in its place.
The other point about the sentence about Saint Petersburg, is that to my mind
"From 1924 to 1991" means exactly "was true for some time in the past". And in this article it's not mentioned that you could use "used to" if something "was true for some time in the past". It's clearly stated that past simple must be utilized

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

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

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

 

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

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

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