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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


Past simple, used to and would 2


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


Past simple and past continuous 2


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


Past simple, continuous and perfect 2


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


Present perfect and past simple 2


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.


the best answer is b-has been feeling :D


I read this conversation used for explaining reported speech :

Daughter: I'm going out now, dad.
Mother (out of earshot): What did she say?
Father: She said she's going out.

My questions are :
1) Would it not be appropriate if mother says What does she say or what is she saying instead of " What did she say " . The reason for this , I feel , are :

There is no significant time change between when daughter spoke and mother asked the question and so she should not have used past tense immediately.

2) Reporting verb of father should be in present . My reason is :

Again there is neither significant time change nor change of place and also
the daughter seems to be present there and has yet not left the place as I deduce form the dialogues.

Would you help me clear this.

Thanking you

Hello dipak,

1) What you say makes sense, but the past simple is by far the most commonly used form here. It only marks the action as in the past -- it can be the very recent past. The present continuous might be possible in some specific situation, e.g. if the speaker had the sense that the daughter hadn't finished saying everything she had to say yet, but the present simple isn't used in this way at all.

2) Yes, the father could 'She says ...' and that would be fine, too.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

First of all, I'd like to apologize I posted this in the wrong section.

I want to know if "After seventy years of British withdrawal...." is grammatically correct. When I read it, to me it seemed like the author was saying that the British withdrawal was a process that took 70 years, and the subject is what happened after the seventy years.

In my opinion, the correct way saying what the author means is "Seventy years after the British withdrawal...", but am I even right?

(Also, could you please provide feedback on the language used in this comment?)

Hello ItsJustADisposable,

Without knowing what is meant by this phrase, I'm afraid I can't say much for certain, but I can say the second phrasing sounds better to me, too.

We're happy to help out with any sentences from our pages that you have questions on, and occasionally help out with other specific questions about specific sentences, but otherwise I'm afraid we don't provide the service of correcting users texts. 

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, i got confused with 3parts

1) "past simple-happened several time in the past", the context "Most evenings we used to stay at home and watch DVDs", the meaning is the actions only happened in the past but not continue now or still continue?

2) "Past in the past", the context "They wanted to buy a computer, but they hadn't saved enough money", the meaning is they had no enough money for a computer back then, but now, they have or don't have a computer?

3) "Future in the past" - the context "It was September. Mary was starting school the next week", the meaning of the "next week" is not happen yet as of the time of speaking or already happened?

Hope you can explain further.

Thank you.

Hello again CK,

1) 'used to' only refers to past actions that are no longer true. So in this case we do not stay at home and watch DVDs in the present.

2) This form doesn't refer to the present at all, so it is not clear whether they have a computer or not now.

3) The time of speaking is presumably sometime after September, so 'next week' refers to a time that is in the past (from the perspective of the present) but in the future (from the perspective of the past time that is being talked about).

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

I have some problems with the word '' today ''.
If I want to describe at the evening about an event happened in this morning, which sentence is grammatically correct.
1. Today,I went to a village.
2. Today,I go to a village.

Hello Jack Frost,

The first sentence is correct if you are speaking after the trip (for example, if you are speaking in the afternoon).

The second sentence would be correct if you were describing a typical action which happens to take place today. For example, imagine you go to the village every Friday and it is Friday today. Then you might say 'I go to the village today', describing what is a typical action for you.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team


Shouldn't there be an apostrophe after the s in two weeks' time?

the past continuous:
It was September. Mary was starting school the next week.
We were very busy. The shop was opening in two weeks time.