Past tense

Level: intermediate

Past tense

There are two tenses in English – past and present.

The past tense in English is used:

  • to talk about the past
  • to talk about hypotheses (when we imagine something)
  • for politeness.

There are four past tense forms in English:

Past simple: I worked
Past continuous: I was working
Past perfect: I had worked
Past perfect continuous: I had been working

We use these forms:

  • to talk about the past:

He worked at McDonald's. He had worked there since July.
He was working at McDonald's. He had been working there since July.

  • to refer to the present or future in hypotheses:

It might be dangerous. Suppose they got lost.

This use is very common in wishes:

I wish it wasn't so cold.

and in conditions with if:

He could get a new job if he really tried.
If Jack was playing, they would probably win.

For hypotheses, wishes and conditions in the past, we use the past perfect:

It was very dangerous. What if you had got lost?
I wish I hadn't spent so much money last month.
I would have helped him if he had asked.

and also to talk about the present in a few polite expressions:

Excuse me, I was wondering if this was the train for York.
I just hoped you would be able to help me.

Past tense 1


Past tense 2


Take your language skills and your career to the next level
Get unlimited access to our self-study courses for only £5.99/month.

You're asking me: "What did you do yesterday"
I'am answering:"I wrote a book"
What will you think ?
(A) That I wrote some pages of book (didn't finish the book).
(B) That I wrote a whole book (finished the book) ?
How should I answer in option (A) ?

Hello PeterNosov,

'I wrote a book' would normally mean that you wrote a whole book. If you wrote but didn't finish the book, you could say 'I wrote some pages for my book' or 'I did some writing' or 'I worked on my book'. There are other options, too, but these are some common ways to express that idea.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Team, Could you tell me whether the following sentence is correct: The air turned cold. (cold as in the opposite of hot). I know that the word 'cold' is an adjective and not an adverb (which presumably should follow the verb 'turned'), so that is the reason for my query. Thanks for your help, lexeus.

Hello lexeus,

Yes, it's correct to use an adjective after the verb 'turn' when it means 'become'. If you follow the link and look at the example sentences under the fourth entry (look for the words 'turn verb (BECOME' in purple), you'll see a sentence very similar to the one you're asking about.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I came across this sentence in a news article: It is also a crime if a North Korean is aware of the sale but did not report it. May I know, if using "did not" in the sentence is applied due to referring to the present or future in hypotheses? If that is the case, should we use "were" to replace "is" as the if-conjuncture is about hypotheses?

Hello CareBears07,

I'm afraid I can't be completely sure what time this refers to without knowing the full context, but it sounds to me as if it's referring to a hypothetical present situation (being aware) that is conditioned by a past action (not reporting).

It wouldn't be correct to change 'is aware' to 'were aware' because 'it is a crime' at the beginning of the sentence clearly sets up a first conditional for the main sentence. You could, however, write 'It would also be a crime if a North Korean were aware of the sale but hadn't reported it.'

Hope this helps.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, would you say “thank to my studies I DEVELOPED specific skills…” or “thank to my studies I HAVE DEVELOPED specific skills…”? (my studies finished one year ago). Thanks a lot!

Hello Cmd94,

Both forms are possible. You can look at this as a present result of a past action (I have developed) or as a past action (I developed). It's a question of emphasis and speaker choice.



The LearnEnglish Team

Can you please help me? which variant is correct: Did you eat anything interesting in China? or Have you eaten anything interesting in China? and why? thanks a lot)

Hi elena108108,

Both questions are grammatically correct, and they have different meanings.

The first question is in the past simple. It refers to a past time that is finished, e.g. Did you eat anything interesting when you went to China last year / in 2018? 

The second question is in the present perfect. This is used for unfinished time periods. If you ask Have you eaten anything interesting in China?, the person you are speaking to is probably in China right now, i.e. the time period for the action continues up to and includes the present moment. (The past simple question, on the other hand, probably means that the person you are speaking to is not in China any more, i.e. that time period is now finished.)

Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

What does Lean Toward mean? I have looked up some online dictionaries but they aren't comprehensible to me. Could you please give me some examples of it?

Hi amit_ck,

Lean means to move your head or the top part of your body closer to something. Your legs and feet stay in the same place. Towards shows the direction of the movement (i.e. what you are going to reach or touch). Here are some examples.

  • He leaned towards her because he couldn't hear her clearly.
  • If I cannot see the computer screen clearly, I lean towards the screen.


Apart from that physical meaning, lean towards is also used figuratively, with a similar meaning: to move towards something in your feelings, interests or preferences.

For example:

  • I haven't decided which university to apply to yet, but I'm leaning towards New University.
  • The designers usually lean towards bright, bold colours.

Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Can someone explain to me why "I'm sorry, WERE you WAITING for me" is a polite expression instead of something real in the past because I'm sorry isn't highlighted but the WERE and WAITING are. Doesn't this mean that we should answering considering those 2 words instead of I'm sorry?

Hello Yash,

The speaker here has a choice. They could say either of these:

'...were you waiting for me?'

'...are you waiting for me?'

Both are grammatically correct, and so we cannot say that the action is in the past.

The past form is less direct and this makes it a little more polite. Obviously, saying 'I'm sorry' adds further politeness.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, Why in Wikipedia pages we change verb from “is” to “was” when a person dies? Like Ernest Hemingway “was” a novelist. He does not write in a period of his lifetime and quit after that, so why shouldn’t we use “is” after his death?

Hello Fiona,

There are times when we do use the present simple to talk about the past, but in a text from an encyclopedia, the general style is to use the past to speak about a person who is no longer alive.

I'm not sure if I've answered your question, so please ask again if you have any other doubts about this.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk, Thanks for answering, but I do still have something hope you can clarify for me. My concern is that, novelist seems to be an general description, a status may not be changed if a person dies or not. If I say, “Hemingway was a journalist in his 20’s”, I may think of it as he once was a journalist, but had something else for making a living afterwards. Other similar examples would be like “Einstein was a physicist”, or “Mozart was a musician”, which seem to be general facts for me. So I was wondering why we don’t use present tense in these circumstances. Thanks for answering.

Hello again Fiona,

I can see what you mean, but I'm afraid that using the present tense to talk about Einstein, Mozart or Hemingway would be non-standard in most situations in English. I say 'most situations' because maybe there is some very specific one where it would work, but I can't think of one.

In some other Indo-European languages (for example, Spanish or Catalan), a present tense can be used in the way you suggest, but in English it isn't. I might suggest you think of the present simple as a tense for things that are always true (e.g. the sun is a star, winter begins in June in Argentina, etc.) rather than as for general facts, which is a category that's a bit too wide I think.

By the way, it is possible to use the present tense in English to speak about past events when you are telling a story or summarising something you have heard, read or seen (e.g. a film). Note that in both cases, the speaker is showing a kind of personal perspective, and so this wouldn't be appropriate for speaking about historical figures in most contexts.

Hope this clarifies it for you, but don't hesitate to ask again if you have any other questions.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

The more I teach English, the sorrier I feel for its learners. Fiona: as Kirk says, we do say Hemingway "was" a novelist, because once he is dead he is no longer a novelist: he does not exist. But as Kirk suspected, "maybe there is some very specific [situation] where "was" would work, but I can't think of one." Interestingly, I would say "Hemingway **is** my favourite author" [he isn't, actually; I hate him!] because my **liking** of him occurs in present time. It would take several thousand words of philosophical abstraction to unpick this, but trust me: If I said "Mozart was my favourite composer", the implication would plainly be that he is no longer. Mozart was a great composer. Mozart is my favourite composer.

Hello Peter,

I think you're being a little harsh on the English language here! It is quite logical, but it's important to approach the meaning in the right way. This means not focusing on the action of the verb but rather the time frame in which it occurs. For example:

Cormack McCarthy wrote novels in his 20s.

The past tense is used here not because the action is no longer true - Cormack McCarthy is still writing novels, after all. However, we have a closed (finished) time reference and so the action is complete in that sense.

When the time reference is not closed, we use a present tense:

Cormack McCarthy has been writing novels since his 20s.

Cormack McCarthy is a novelist.


On the other hand, when no time reference is given, the past tense indicates that the action itself is complete and no longer current, while the present tense indicates that the action is still true:

Cormack McCarthy lived in Tennessee.

Cormack McCarthy lives in New Mexico.

Thus, as you say, 'Mozart was my favourite composer' would mean that something has changed and Mozart is no longer your favourite. On the other hand, if you include a finished past time reference then it could still be true:

Mozart was my favourite composer when I was a student, and he's still my favourite composer today.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Which one is correct? - Now fewer children and mothers have health problems than they (had - did) 100 years ago. Thank you
Hello. Could you help me clear my confusion? Which one is correct? Why? 1- I'd rather Tom slept than (watch - watched) TV. 2- I'd rather Tom had slept than (watch - watched - had watched) TV yesterday. Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

This is a bit complicated but I'll try to explain! Let's start with the most likely options.

  • I'd rather Tom slept than watched TV.
  • I'd rather Tom had slept than had watched TV yesterday.
  • I'd rather Tom had slept than watched TV yesterday.

In these sentences, the second verb is done by Tom. Notice that the second verb is in the same tense as the first verb (e.g. slept and watched - past simple). This is because if a speaker offers two options for an activity, as in these examples, they are almost certainly in the same timeframe. 

The third example above uses just watched, but it's still the past perfect tense. That's because it follows had slept (past perfect). There's no need to repeat the auxiliary verb had.

Below are some meanings that are less likely, but are still grammatically possible.

  • I'd rather Tom slept than watch TV.
  • I'd rather Tom had slept than watch TV yesterday.

These two sentences have a different meaning. Watch can follow I'd rather (= I'd rather watch). So in these sentences, watch TV means the speaker (not Tom) watching TV. For example, in the first sentence, the speaker prefers that Tom slept instead of the speaker him/herself watching TV.

So, overall, all the options are grammatically correct - but the first group of examples are the most likely meanings. Does that make sense?

We try to answer questions as quickly as we can. At busy times it may take a little longer :)

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

1 - Watch, because we are talking about something that is happening right now. 2 - Watched, because the word "yesterday" indicates that we are talking about the past. We don't say had watched because we already said "had" in "Tom HAD slept".
Hello peter, "who ate all my cookies?" and "who has eaten all my cookies". "I ate all the cookies." and "I have ate all the cookies." Does these pairs of sentences differ in meaning . If so ,what is the differences. Thanks .

Hello Peterlam,

Yes, there is a difference in meaning between the past simple ('I ate') and the present perfect ('I have eaten'). The past simple form speaks about an event that we considered finished and entirely in the past ('Yesterday I ate all the cookies' -- yesterday is clearly a time that has already passed), whereas the present perfect form shows that we think there is still a connection to the present ('I have eaten all the cookies' -- here perhaps we are both looking at the plate where the cookies were before I ate them, and which now only has crumbs on it. We can still see the results of my recent past action.).

You can read more about this and see other examples on our Talking about the past page.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Informal question: Back in the day, we didn't got/get any vehicles to move around . what to use get/got ? in regards to possesiveness equivalent formal sentence is Back in the day, we didn't have any vehicles to move around .

Hello lima9795,

Get when used as a main verb means something similar to receive. For possession, we don't use get as a main verb but rather in the form have got (had got etc). In your example, you could replace didn't have with hadn't got.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Could you please help me? Is the following sentence correct? - Nobody has come to see us since we lived in our new house. Thank you. I appreciate your help.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

That's not quite right. We would use the verb 'moved (to)' rather than 'lived (in)':

Nobody has come to see us since we moved to our new house.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Could you please help me? Which sentence is correct? If both are correct, what is the difference between them? - When she left school, she learnt many things and decided to be a teacher. - When she left school, she had learnt many things and decided to be a teacher. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both sentences are grammatically possible.

The first sentence (she left) implies the following sequence: first she left school, then she learnt many things.

The first sentence (she had left) implies the following sequence: first she learn many things, then she left school.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. What's wrong with the following sentence? I think it is OK. - I did my homework when the telephone rang. Thank you.
India went on to win after following-on at Eden gardens or India went on to won after following-on at Eden gardens which is correct

Hello Badagoni.Naresh,

'went on to win' is the correct form. In this case, the phrasal verb 'to go on' is followed by an infinitive.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir I have an another example We know When we change Imperative Sentence(Direct Speech) into Indirect Speech we use "to" to join two clauses. Like He said to me"Come here."(Direct Speech) He ordered me to come here.(Indirect Speech) We know that the Indirect Speech is also a Simple Sentence which has a finite verb(Ordered). If we change this Simple sentence into a complex sentence. He ordered me to come here.(Simple sentence) He ordered me that I come/came here.(Complex Sentence) Which verb is preferable here. My doubt regarding to this question is that can we assume this order as an Indirect Order if it is an Indirect Order then the verb must be Base form of verb.

Hello Kapil Kabir,

I'm afraid ...ordered me that I... is not a correct construction, irrespective of the form of the verb which follows.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir, how do we use Sequence of tenses in a correct manner. Like, that clause(Sub ordinate Clause) follows Each tense in sub ordinate clause.

Hello Kapil Kabir

There are explanations of this on our Reported speech 1, 2 and 3 pages. Please have a look at those pages and try the exercises on them. If you have any further question, don't hesitate to ask us on one of those pages.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team