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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.


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

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

thank youPeter,to talk about arrangements can we use present continuous and "going to"indifferently?so can I say "Mary is going to start school next week?

Hello manuel24,

There is a difference in the use of these forms. Please take a look at our pages on the topic as I think these will clarify it for you. If you still have a question after reading about it on those pages, please post your question there and we'll be try to answer it for you.



The LearnEnglish Team

thank you peter,the sentence "Mary was starting school next week" could have the same meaning of "Mary would have started school next week"?I also would say if the sentence "someone would suddenly put a coin in it and it would begin to play" is correct,shouldn't be "someone would have suddenly put a coin in it and it would have begun to play?