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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)

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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,

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?

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

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.

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

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

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

Dear Kirk

Is it correct to use the phrase "Rabbit is caught"

Thanks

Hello Praveen

What's the context?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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