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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 don't know why, but I'm not findings as much as satisfaction in learning German as I ....... when I started the program.

1. had done 2. have done 3. did 4. was doing

past continuous when simple past
simple past when simple past
past perfect when simple past

Hello amirfd,
I'm afraid we don't provide answers to questions like this. We're happy to explain the information on our own pages, or to answer more general questions about the English language where possible, but we don't provide an answer service for questions from elsewhere. If we did, soon we would end up doing users' homework for them!
I can tell you to look at the time relationships in the sentence. You have two times here: present ('I'm not finding') and past ('when I started'). You need to decide when the third action happens: before the past action or at the same time as/after the past action.
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter.
It's not my homework. Thank you.

I like this grammar!

Hello.I ask two question that i tried to figure out. One is: "A recent study, *was published which in the British Dental Journal, *focuses on a comperative analysis of the skulls of modern day people and two sets of older skulls." I think it should have been "is published" and "has focused" words after *. Why not? How can we use past tense and present tense together in one sentence. Thank you.

Hello baburbb,

The act of publishing was in the past. It is one act which is done at a particular moment, so the past tense is used.

The study itself has an ongoing existence and so we use a present tense to describe what it does/says/claims etc.


If you had a different verb than 'publish' you might use a present form. For example:

A recent study can be read in the British...

A recent study which is available in the British..




The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Mr. Peter. But there is one point that i still don't understand. Why is it past tense? Is there any sign? Is it about with word "publish" ?

Hello baburbb,

In your sentence, the verb publish refers to the act of creating a book/journal/magazine etc. Before the book is available to buy it is not published; when it is available is has been published. The act of publishing, in your sentence, happened in the past.


Here is another example:

Melville’s sixth book, Moby-Dick, was first published in October 1851 in London.



The LearnEnglish Team

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