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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.


Hello manuel24,

Those sentences are not the same.

Mary was starting school next week means that it was her intention to start school. There is no information about whether or not she did start.

Mary would have started... tells us that she did not start school. It describes something that was intended but did not come to pass for some reason.

The difference between the last two sentences is similar, but it makes little sense to discuss them without a context. Modal verbs such as would are context dependent. Your sentence could refer to past habits or to a hypothetical situation in the present or future, for example.


I suggest you take a look at our section on modal verbs:



The LearnEnglish Team

hello everyone,i don't understand the construction of the following sentence:
"But his career could have panned out very differently had he opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager".Why "had is not after the subject?shouldn't there be "if" after "differently"?

Hello manuel24,

There are two ways to phrase this sentence.

You can use if:

But his career could have panned out very differently if he had opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager.

Or you can use the inverted form:

But his career could have panned out very differently had he opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello learn english team
I want to ask something about last sentence in the excersice why the answer is suffered not had suffered
Aren’t they remembering their suffer so it an event happened and finished and then they start remembering

Hi Aya salah,

The past perfect is used when there is another point of reference in the past. In the first part of this sentence, the point of reference is the present (they find it difficult now), not the past, so the past perfect would be strange here unless there were some other mention of the past in the text. Since this sentence stands alone (i.e. is not part of another text), the best answer is in the past simple.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Learn English team,
I have found this sentence online which was mentioned as a general statement.
"Facebook was basically invented to accomplish a social mission"
The question is, is the using of model "was" correct here? I think if it is replaced by "is" word , the sentence will be perfect - as long as "Facebook" still exists, am I correct?

Hello Hopefinder,

'Was' here is not a modal verb but an auxiliary verb. It is part of the passive verb phrase 'was invented'.

Facebook still exists, of course. However, the sentence is not about it existing but rather it being invented, and the invention was at one moment in the past. Therefore, you cannot replace 'was' with 'is' here.



The LearnEnglish Team

Please...Why are they sentences past simple and not past perfect when they have two past events?

Before Lola went out, she ate her lunch.

They interviewed 30 people before they found the right person.

Before Anna moved to London, she lived in Germany.

In all these sentences, would it be wrong to use the past perfect in the first action?

Thank you

Hello Mbazarov,

When the context makes it clear which event happened first, the past perfect is often not used, especially in informal situations. If you were going to use the past perfect in these sentences, it would be used for the action that came first in time:

Before Lola went out, she had eaten her lunch.
They had interviewed 30 people before they found the right person.
Before Anna moved to London, she had lived in Germany.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

hello,shouldn't be the simple past in these example? "you'are late..where have you been?" the mother said to her daughter
"I herewith acknowledge that i have received a baggage delivery receipt from sogaerdyn s.p.a...."