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.

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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Soumis par Alex H le mer 29/03/2017 - 15:11

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Hello! I've just read comments about sequence of tenses. I used to think that only object clauses depend on sequence of clauses (she said she LIVED (now) in London). But there are many websites that says sequence of tenses isn't used with other subordinate clauses too. Peter M explained the example "he didn't get a job because his English isn't / wasn't well" and wrote that the second sentence could contain present tense (isn't) although the main sentence is past action. So, I concluded that clauses of reason didn't depend on sequence of tenses. Could you tell me which types of subordinate clauses also don't depend on sequence of tenses?

Hello Alex H,

In my answer I made the point that the use of different verb forms is really based not upon the nature of the clause but on the logical meaning being expressed. In the examples I quoted the issue was whether or not the action or state is still true or not (or is not known). Looking for a rule which is dependent on the type of subordinate clause is a false path, I would suggest, and is exactly the mistake which the earlier poster was making in his question.

To give you just one more example, it is perfectly fine to say all of the following:

She said she had lived in London.

She said she lived in London.

She said she has lived in London.

She said she lives in London.

She said she was going to live in London.

She said she is going to live in London.

She said she would live in London.

She said she will live in London.

And many other forms are possible as well. The choice - and it is a choice - is the speaker's, and depends not upon the nature of the clause but on the meaning which the speaker wishes to express.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you!!! Basically, I'm shocked:) I thought the second sentence in my example could contain only past tense I thought the second sentence in my example CAN contain only past tense

Hi Alex H,

In this example 'could' seems to make more sense, as the sentence was written in the past and you are referring to something which is a completed action (the forming of that sentence). If you were speaking in more general terms then the present tense would be more appropriate. For example:

I thought that the type of sentence in my example can contain only past tense.

Here you are no longer talking about one sentence written in the past, but a type of sentence. Again, it is a question of how you see the action, not the type of clause.

I think this page will be helpful to you on this point. As you'll see, the first statement on that page is

Many teachers and learners think that tense forms in reported speech are complex.

In fact, "reported speech" follows exactly the same rules as the rest of the language.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Asgharkhan8 le sam 25/03/2017 - 03:43

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Are both these sentences correct or not? Did you go to the job today? Why didn't you go to the job today?

Soumis par Najid Ali le mer 22/03/2017 - 17:04

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we use +ing with the first form of a verb in continuous while using the was were but sometimes we use past participle with was/were why you do this?

Soumis par Widescreen le ven 10/03/2017 - 01:36

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Hi team, I am confused about the sequence of tenses in a sentence with main and subordinate clause. I understand that in general, if the main clause is in past tense, the sub clause will be in the corresponding past tense. But : Is it true that If the main clause is in the past tense, the subordinate clause can be in any tense in the following exceptions: 1. this subordinate clause expresses place, reason, comparison . Eg: He didn't get the job because his english isn't good (It doesn't sound right to me. Should it be: he didn't get the job because his english wasn't good ) 2. when subordinate clause is an adjective clause. Eg. yesterday I met a girl who sells cakes vs yesterday I met a girl who sold me a cake (again the first sentence doesn't seem right. Should it be : yesterday I met a girl who sold cakes ? But if it was correct then what is the different in term of meaning between the above two sentences?) 3. When subordinate clause start by "than" Eg. He loved me more than he loves you vs. He loved me more than he loved you vs. he loved me more than he will love you. Are all these sentences correct? thank you.

Soumis par Peter M. le ven 10/03/2017 - 06:47

En réponse à par Widescreen

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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

Soumis par ArgelCorpus le mar 07/02/2017 - 01:09

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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

Soumis par Vickyy Bhardwaj le lun 09/01/2017 - 12:13

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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

Soumis par pumbi le dim 01/01/2017 - 17:38

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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

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 02/01/2017 - 08:22

En réponse à par pumbi

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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

Soumis par taj25 le jeu 29/12/2016 - 11:38

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“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.

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 03/01/2017 - 07:41

En réponse à par taj25

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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

Soumis par marcusses le mer 28/12/2016 - 16:15

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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.

Soumis par Daniel H le mer 28/12/2016 - 07:39

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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

Soumis par Angel_Sea le lun 21/11/2016 - 19:29

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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.

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 22/11/2016 - 07:17

En réponse à par Angel_Sea

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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

Soumis par Vickyy Bhardwaj le lun 21/11/2016 - 04:25

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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.

past perfect

past perfect (another page)

perfective aspect

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmedkhairy le ven 21/10/2016 - 16:15

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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 :)

Soumis par Kirk le sam 22/10/2016 - 07:33

En réponse à par Ahmedkhairy

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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

Soumis par sirmee le jeu 06/10/2016 - 09:26

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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

Soumis par Ajaz ajju le dim 02/10/2016 - 07:55

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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

Soumis par Sunny21parikh le sam 17/09/2016 - 20:11

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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

Soumis par Jadon g le sam 17/09/2016 - 02:59

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He was a teacher This sentence is present indefinite or present continues

'was' is a past tense form, more specifically past simple. The past continuous form would be 'was being'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Montri le ven 16/09/2016 - 05:12

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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

Soumis par Montri le lun 12/09/2016 - 09:24

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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!