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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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Comments

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,

Kirk

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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I got your point! Thanks a lot!!

Hello. Which one is correct?

- Now fewer children and mothers have health problems than they (had - did) 100 years ago.

Thank you

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The correct form is 'had' because the verb here is 'have'. We say 'have health problems' not 'do'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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.

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. Could you please reply to my question?
Thank you.

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