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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


Past tense 2



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

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.