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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.


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.

Hello jean999,

Thank you very much for pointing this out. You are quite correct and I have edited the page accordingly.

We try very hard to avoid typos like this but some inevitably get through and when they do it is good to know we can rely on our eagle-eyed users to spot them!


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Very nice! I get it.
Hope you don't mind coz I am asking again, like I really need to relate this to my previous question.
Q: if I use ''have'' is it correct if don't add a time reference to it? On the flip side, I'm aware I have to include a time reference but I'm asking if it is still possible if I don't (ex. I have finished my homework) Thx.

Hello Aoll212,

In this example you have changed the verb form from past perfect to present perfect, so it is not the same meaning at all. With present perfect sentences the time reference is already known: it is the present. There is no need to provide a time reference. The past perfect describes a time before a past time, so needs a reference; the present perfect describes a time before the present, and so the time reference is already known. Therefore your example is fine and, indeed, providing a time reference other than a duration of unfinished time (with for or since) would be incorrect.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again,
I want to ask about using past perfect 'had'
Example: 'I had read'
1. Is this grammatically correct without adding time reference?

Hello Aoll212,

The sentence is correct grammatically speaking, but it needs a context to make sense. That could be provided by an explicit time reference or by the context of other information around this sentence. The past perfect always refers to a time before another event in the past, so we need to have another event for it to make sense.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, i just wanted to know in a letter if i am tellinghappened in the the past like for example..

Five days ago, the patient complained a heache or has complained headache? But she is still experiencing headache at the time of writing a letter. I am confused. Pls help me.

Hello luveee13,

When we have a finished time reference ('give days ago') we do not use the present perfect. The compaint was in the past and is finished and so we use the past simple. If the action or event is not finished then the present perfect is used. For example, the patient's pain has not ended so you would say 'She has had headaches for five days' or 'The headaches have been hurting her for five days'.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team