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

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Past tense 2

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Hello Widescreen,

I think you are unnecessarily complicating this. The use of tenses is not different because of the clause type here, but follows normal use. That means that different forms are possible, depending on the meaning intended. I'll demonstrate with one of your examples, but the points I make are applicable to the others as well.

He loved me more than he loves you (his love for me was in the past and is finished; his love for you is true now)

He loved me more than he loved you (both his love for me and his love for you were in the past and are finished)

He loved me more than he will love you. (his love for me was in the past; he may or may not love you now but I am talking about his love for you in the future)

 

Nothing changes because there is a particular clause here. The tenses are used in accordance with their normal meaning.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

please correct if I am wrong but when you say follow normal use, does it mean we don't need to worry about the sequence of tenses in a sentence ? (I.e. past tense goes with past tense ) But if I say " he didn't get the job because his english isn't good", it does't make sense because :"he didn't get the job" was a past action and his english must not have been good at that time in the past. so I need to use " wasn't" instead of " isn't ? thank you

Hello Widescreen,

By 'nornal use' I mean that the fact that there is a subordinate clause does not affect the tense use.

In the example you quote you are making an assumption that the present simple refers only to the present, but in fact it can be used to describe something which is generally true. Both of these sentences are correct and make sense:

He didn't get the job because his English wasn't good.

He didn't get the job because his English isn't good.

In the first sentence we know only that his English was not good at the time he applied for the job. We do not know if it improved later or not, or if he would get the job now if he applied again.

In the second sentence we know that his English was not good at the time he applied for the job, and is still not good now.

Similarly, I could say the following:

I couldn't reach the book because I wasn't tall enough.

I couldn't reach the book because I am not tall enough.

Both of these are correct. The information is slightly different, but both are grammatically correct.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Is the flowing sentence correct: I called him many times but he is not answering? I think when I say (I called him many times but he wasn't answering) is more correct? Help me please. Other case: 1-If she could see him now she would be proud of him. 2-If you moved away you might not see them again. The both sentences seem to be conditionals!! but if you see that one of them is a hypothetical, please explain to me why. Thanks in advance

Hello again Yasser Azizi,

If you're speaking about calls that you made in the past and are no longer still making, then yes, 'wasn't answering' would be the correct form. It could be that you made the calls several times and still plan to make more. In that case, 'isn't answering' is correct.

Sorry again for the confusion about conditionals and hypotheticals. Really they amount to the same thing in sentences like these, so please ignore that distinction. We'll fix that page as soon as we can.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

I need a little help to understand the tense in which a line of a poem by Stevie Smith, " A Man I Am", was written. The line is this: "I was consumed by so much hate". I need to know what kind of tense is "I was consumed". I understand that it has the past form of the verb to be (was) + a participle (consumed). I guess what I am asking is whether this kind of past has a name or not, and how can I understand it better in order to explain it to my students. Thank you.

Hello ArgelCorpus,

The form here is past simple passive:

Active: So much hate consumed me

Passive: I was consumed by so much hate

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Simple past tense: My mum and dad had worked incredibly hard to afford me an education. and My mum and dad worked incredibly hard to afford me an education. Both sentences are grammatically correct. But why 'had' is used , that is past perfect as there are no two events in the sentences and " since " is also not used at the end as it is used to specify a time event. The first statement is a quote by Benedict Cumberbatch

Hello Vickyy,

It's difficult to say without knowing the full context of this sentence, but probably the context, i.e. the sentences before it, include some reference to a past time. It is probably this past time that the past perfect in the quote refers to.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Sir; I don't know that this is the right page to ask my question.My question is related to past tense. That is why I chose this page. They might have thought we didn't raise any issue. [here I want to tell abut a past thought which someone thought.] They thought we came early. The above sentences are correct ? Thanks

Hi Hasipumba,

It's very hard to comment on these without knowing the context in which they are to be used. For example, all of the following are possible sentences:

They might have thought we won't raise any issue.

They might have thought we aren't going to raise any issue.

They might have thought we weren't going to raise any issue.

They might have thought we wouldn't raise any issue.

They might have thought we didn't raise any issue.

They might have thought we hadn't raised any issue.

And other forms are possible too. Some - including the example you gave - can only be used in very specific contexts while others are more common. Without knowing the context, it is impossible to say which is the correct form. The same is true of the second example: it may be correct but that will depend upon the context.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Sir ; I want to tell what I guess that someone thought in the past like this. Ex: A person : What do you think about Marry's answers for the questions we asked in the conference call?. B Person : I think , they might have thought that we didn't ask any questions about the report in the conference call When A person is asking this question from B person , A and B persons have participated the call and already asked the questions.After the call,they are discussing what they happened in the conference call. Thaks

Hello Hasimpumba,

We would generally use 'might have thought' when we are describing an opinion which has changed:

They might have thought it was impossible before, but now they know it can be done.

The form doesn't really work in this context because they know whether or not questions have been asked. Before they questions are asked they may have expected something, but not thought something. You could say:

...they might have been surprised that we didn't ask any questions about the report in the conference call

or

they might have expected us to ask some questions about the report in the conference call

I hope that helps.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

“I work in a bank”), or we can use reported speech (He said he worked in a bank.) he said that he works in a bank. is it possible to make
hi peter no no i think you misunderstood. what were i ask to you. (he said that he works in a bank) . are the sentence grammatically correct.

Hello taj25,

I understood the question. However, when the information is on our pages already we ask users to try to find it themselves. Did you read the pages I suggested?

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Greetings! I don't know if this is the right place for my question and maybe this question has been answered elsewhere. I could not find anything about sequence of tenses here. Would it be possible for you to give me some directions? Thank you.
God night! I was listening to Beatles' "Yesterday" and in a part of the song Paul sings: "Why she had to go". Is that correct? It doesn't would better "Why did she have to go"? Thank you so much.

Hello Daniel H,

In that case, I believe the order of the words has been changed. In other words, if it wasn't in a song (where the order of words is often changed), this sentence would be 'I don't know why she had to go. She wouldn't say'. The clause 'why she had to go' has the normal word order because it's the object of 'I don't know', just like we'd say 'I don't know where my brother is', etc.

Otherwise, if that clause was separate, it should be just as you suggested.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I am confused are these below a combination of tenses? Number 1 – is this past simple and present perfect because they finished reading the book but then they being sick since Tuesday is present perfect? 1) I only read half the book because I have been sick since Tuesday. 2) My Grandmother died before I was born, and so I never met her. 3) When Ann first moved to Italy, she spoke almost no Italian. Since then she has learned quite a bit.

Hello Angel_Sea,

I'm not sure what the source of those sentences is but they do not appear correct to me. As the action of reading the book is incomplete the present perfect would be used:

I have only read half the book because I have been sick since Tuesday.

The second sentence is fine. Both actions are in the past and are complete; neither can change now.

The third sentence is fine. The moving and the state of not speaking Italian are finished past time and so past simple is appropriate; the learning is recent/unfinished past with a present result and so present perfect is correct.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I get confusion lot of times b/w past and past perfect. Isn't it correct - He worked at McD's.He worked there since July. He was away that week so he had missed the meeting. He could get a new job if he had really tried. If Jack was playing they had probably win. If David was here, he had known what to do. If she could see him now , she had been so proud... these all are such instances, how can I help myself in overcoming this thing. when to use what....??

Hello Vickyy Bhardwaj,

I can see that you are confused by this issue and it is a tricky area. The important thing to remember is that we use the past perfect when there is a relationship between two events in the past, not just when one is before another. For example:

I ate grapefruit for breakfast and a large lunch later on. [actions one after another]

I had a large lunch as I had eaten only grapefruit for breakfast. [the lunch is large because of the small breakfast]

When deciding whether the past perfect is appropriate or not we need to know the context and the perspective of the speaker. As you can see from the example above, the same actions can be expressed in different ways depending on the speaker's intention and choices.

Your sentences describe many different situations, and they are not examples of the same thing. Some appear to be about the past and others about the present or future. It's not possible to explain each example but here is how I would say these - with the caveat that many different forms are possible, depending on the context and intention of the speaker:

He worked at McDonald's. He had worked there since July.

He had been away that week so he missed the meeting.

He could get a new job if he really tried.

If Jack had been playing they would probably have won.

If David had been here, he would have known what to do.

If she could see him now, she would be so proud.

To learn more about the past perfect I think these pages will be useful for you:

past perfect

talking about the past

past perfect (another page)

perfective aspect

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Sir , I haven't finished any of the books I ( started / had started / has started ) in the last couple of months. Which for is correct and when to use the other ones?! One more thing my English is quite good now but still it's hard to write Sentences some times. it's hard to link them together and I don't know if it's a grammatical defect or vocabulary so any advice please! Thank you and sorry for the inconvenience :)

Hello Ahmedkhairy,

In that sentence, 'started' is the correct form. You can see explanations of the other two forms - 'had started' is past perfect and 'has started' is present perfect - by following the links. Our talking about the past page might also be helpful. If it's still not clear to you after reading those pages, you're welcome to ask again, but please make your question as specific as possible.

There's some general advice on improving your writing on our Frequently asked questions page that you might find helpful. If possible, I'd suggest looking for a teacher to help you. You could contact the British Council in Egypt about a class to find one. It's also important that you read widely in English. Make a note of how sentences are joined together and imitate what you read in your own writing.

Good luck!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir, a university has placed students to their various departments few days ago, and I want to inform them about it. QUESTION: Hi all, registration starts tomorrow for students that ARE PLACE in erciyes university. should the word place be in past simple? Thank you for d good work
Hello sir I have one doubt regarding 3rd conditional Sir can we use SHOULD in 3rd conditional for result clause like how we use could might and would. Should

Hello Ajaz ajju,

I can't think of a situation in which 'should have' + past participle could be used in the third conditional. But there may be some situation where it's appropriate that I just can't think of off the top of my head, so if you have something specific in mind or have seen it somewhere, please mention it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

They killed the man with a gun. Which one is correct passive form?and why The man was killed by them with a gun. The man with a gun was killed by them.

Hello Sunny21parikh,

Both are possible. The first version means that the gun was used by the people who killed the man (i.e. he was shot). The second version means that the man had a gun when he was killed.

The reason both sentences are possible is that the example you provide at the start is ambiguous - it could mean either of these, and so both are possible.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

But Sir, which one is more appropriate than other? If I have been given this sentence in exam then what should I follow first,any grammatical rule like relative adverb or anything.....? they killed the man with a gun, What Should I understand first the man had a gun or they had ?

Hello Sunny21parikh,

Tests are made with specific purposes in mind, and since we didn't create this test it's difficult to know this. In any case, I?m afraid we don't generally comment on exams – really the best person to speak to would be your teacher.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Firstly, I must tell you that the no 1 answer was the right one... your original question Is that THEY KILLED THE MAN WITH A GUN? the question didn't confirm that he had a gun before he was killed. This is a very straightforward answer because you pick your answer from a given question in as much as you follow the English rules, you do not need to formalize what is not in your question. The man was killed with a gun by them! That's your final answer.... Q - past simple and A - past perfect. Let's look at this again : They killed the gunman with a gun? The gunman was killed with a gun by then! Another. They killed the man that had gun with a gun? The man that had gun was killed with a gun by then... think deep and give me thought. That was how I was taught with rules.
The following sentences are correct in grammar and the meaning of them is the same or not? 1.I used to visit my sister twice a week. 3.I would visit my sister twice a week. 2.I have visited my sister twice a week. Thank you!

Hello Montri,

Sentences 1 ('used to') and 3 ('would') both describe past habits which are no longer true.

Sentence 2 ('have visited') describes an action in a time frame which is not complete - it tells us about the past up to the present and not a finished/closed time period. In other words, the meaning is that your sister is still alive and you may continue to visit her. The meaning here, then is different.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Do I understand the use of past tense to refer to the present or future in conditions as the following sentences? He could get a new job if he really tried. -It tell us he can get a new job (in the future) if he really try in the present. If Jack was playing they would probably win. -It tell us they will probably win the game (in the future)if Jack play the the game (in the future) Thank you!

Hello Montri,

You've got the basic idea, but these second conditional sentences don't necessary imply that the actions will happen in the future. Rather, they express the possibility of them happening if certain conditions occur. Please see our Conditionals 1 page for more on this.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

What is the difference between the following sentences? 1.I have been to Mexico three times. 2.I went to Mexico three times. Thank you!

Hello Montri,

Both of these sentence describe the same events, but the perspective of the speaker is different.

I have been to Mexico three times.

This sentence, using a present perfect form, tells us about the speaker's experience in their whole life up to the moment of speaking. It tells us what experience, knowledge and memories they possess now. We might say this if we wanted to tell somebody that, for example, we can tell them something about Mexico.

I went to Mexico three times.

This setence, using a past simple form, tells us about completed actions in the past. It does not tell us anything about the speaker today. We use this setence when we are talking only about the past, which means about completed time, and it usually has a clear finished time reference ('last year', 'when I was a child', 'when I was a student' etc.).

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello reshu sinha,

No, that sentence is not possible. You could say 'It could be possible' or 'It was possible', for example. However, without the context it is not possible to say what you should say.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir which one in correct I got admission in university ,it was possible by the grace of god or I got admission in university ,it could be possible by the grace of god
Which one z right?? She had told me that she has not done her work. She told me that she has not done her work.

Hello Sunny21parikh,

The second sentence is correct in certain contexts; the first is not.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Why 2nd sentence is not universally true? And if there is another sentence: She tells me that she has not done her work. Then Which one correct?