1 Talking about past events and situations:

We use the past simple:

  • when we are talking about an event that happened at a particular time in the past

We arrived home before dark
The film started at seven thirty.

  • when we are talking about something that continued for some time in the past

Everybody worked hard through the winter.
We stayed with our friends in London.

When we are talking 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.

WARNING: We do not normally use would with stative verbs.

We use the past continuous:

  • when we are talking about something which happened before and after a given time in the past

It was just after ten. I was watching the news on TV.
At half-time we were losing 1-0.

  • when we are talking about something happening 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.

2 The past in the past

When we are looking back from a point in the past to something earlier in the past we use the past perfect:

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.

3 The past and the present:

We use the present perfect:

  • when we are talking about the effects in the present of something that happened in the past:

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.

  • When we are talking about something that started in the past and still goes on:

We have lived here since 2007. (and we still live here)
I have been working at the university for over ten years.

4 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.

  • 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 teacher, i'm sorry to ask a question thay surely a lot of other users have asked many times, and probably you've already answered it somewhere else in this website.. it is about a sentence that i found in a book i'm reading right now. the sentence goes like that " she thought that he took advantage of her mother "..i was wondering why didn't he use the past perfect instead of past simple in the second verb "she thought that he had taken advantage of her mother " since the action of taking advantage is a past action comparing to the action of thinking...many thanks

Hello paris-sorbonne

Without knowing more about the text, I can't really say more about this specific instance, I'm afraid, but as you suggest, it looks as if it would indeed be correct to use the past perfect tense here. Often, when the context is clear people use a simpler form (such as the past simple here), especially in speaking. Perhaps that is why the writer chose to use it here.

Hope this helps!

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear, teachers
I understand the difference now.Thank you so much. But I just remember and I am confuse again. If you don't mind, I ask again: You said that we use Past perfect Continues when the cooking was done when I arrived. But,
Can we use past perfect (my mother had cooked the dinner when I arrived) to say that? I thaught that we are supposed to use "had been cooking" to say how long the cooking had been done when I arrived. Am I wrong?thank you.

Hi jiyi,

First of all, I just wanted to clarify that there are many situations when the past perfect continuous could be used; my example was just one. Others are certainly possible, though.

If you used the past perfect simple here, it would be grammatically correct, but which form is best really depends on how you are imagining that moment in the past and what purpose you have in saying it. Without knowing what you want to communicate, it's difficult to recommend a specific form. For example, imagine I'd brought home some dinner because it was Mother's Day and I wanted my mother to have a break from cooking. In this case, I'd probably say something like 'My mother had already cooked dinner when I arrived.' 

I'm not sure if this is going to help you. I'm sorry about this -- it's just difficult to recommend or explain a specific form without knowing much more about the context or speaker's intentions.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear teacher,
actually you have done well to explain it to me..please allow me to clarify it: after reviewing again the difference between the perfect simple and perfect continuous, I realize that in this context, the past perfect continuous form ( 'my mother had been cooking..) put emphasize more about the activity ( i.e. to tell what my mom was doing) and the perfect simple is to talk about the result ( so that I had too much food at the moment I arrived) or a reason( so that I didn' t have to buy anymore food).. Is this true?

thank you so much ,Sir.

Hello jiyi,

Yes, that's right -- well done!

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear teachers, I would like to ask about these two sentences :
She was cooking when I arrived.
She had been cooking when I arrived.

are those sentence correct ?if they are correct, do they have the same meaning? If they don't, please help me tyo understand why. Thank you, teachers. :)

Hi jiyi,

Both sentences are grammatically correct, but whether they are correct in a particular situation depends on the situation and what you mean. For example, the first one would be appropriate when you arrive home from work and see your mother cooking in that moment. But if you arrive home and see hot food on the table and that your mother has just finished washing her hands, then the second one would be the appropriate one (and not the first, since the cooking is done).

So the past continuous expresses an action that was still in progress, whereas the past perfect continuous talks about the result of an action that just finished. Does that make sense?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

hello,why is there not "Mary would start school the next week" instead of Mary was starting school the next day" as your example above? that sounds me bad..

Hello manuel24,

When we talk about arrangements, we use the present continuous:

Mary is starting school next week.


If we want to say the same thing but referring to the future from a point in the past, we use the past continuous:

Mary was starting school next week.


Grammatically, you could say ...would start..., but this would change the meaning and no longer present the action as an arrangement. For example, you could use this form to describe a decision:

We decided that Mary would start school next week.



The LearnEnglish Team