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 Sunny21parikh,

The second sentence means that the telling was in the past and that the homework is still not completed in the present. In that context the sentence is correct. However, if the telling was in the past and then, later but before the present, the homework was completed then the sentence would need to be different:

She told me that she had not done her work (at the time, but now it is done).

It is possible to say She tells me that she has not done her work. The meaning is the same, but the use of the present simple 'tells' makes the action more immediate - it tells us that the discussion is still ongoing and has not been resolved.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

80% confusion cleared sir correct me if I am wrong 1:I am telling all these 3 sentences to a 3rd person right now(in present)(direct indirect type) 2: 3rd sentence is the most appropriate amongst all. And tell the reason why 1st sentence is wrong.

Hello Sunny21parikh,

I'm afraid I don't understand what you're asking in 1 and 2 – could you please write up a complete question, in which you include the three sentences that you're asking about? Please also explain what you think is correct or incorrect about each. We're happy to help explain things, but it's much easier if you explain what you're thinking. 

'She had told me that she has not done her work.' is not correct because the past perfect ('had told') refers to another past event, but the other verb 'has not done' is a present tense form (not past).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Nadiia le dim 07/08/2016 - 20:22

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Good evening. Please, help me to put correct tense in the following sentence: From 5 to 7 p.m. John _______ (work). Then he went home. a) was working b) worked I would be very grateful if you help me to choose the correct answer and explain why the other variants are not possible in this case. Thank you.

Hello Nadiia,

We don't usually complete questions like this which are from tests or homework - it's not our job to provide answers for such things, and if we tried to do so we would never stop as we would have so many questions! In any case, this particular question does not have a correct answer. Both forms are possible. More context would be needed to say that either is correct or incorrect.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Montri le ven 05/08/2016 - 10:07

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Could you explain the difference of the following sentences? - I used to work as sales manger for 3 years. - I worked as sales manager for 3 years. Both of them are the same meaning,or not? Which one can I choose to say? Thank you.

Hello Montri,

We have pages on 'used to' and the past simple ('worked') which I'd suggest you read through. The two can mean the same thing, but 'used to' has more specific uses that the past simple, which can be used in many different ways. If you have a more specific question after reading those two pages, please feel free to ask us.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

"Use to" refers to something you did a lot in the past, but now you don't... When I was a kid I used to play with snails, but now I hate them. I'd prefer to use "I used to work in the store for 4 years", because it means you worked in the store but now you don't, if you still work there I think it sounds better "I've been working in the store for 4 years", that means you started working there 4 years ago, and you stil do.

Hello HexYamiko,

Thanks for your explanation - it's great that you want to help other users. I just wanted to point out one mistake: 'I used to work in the store for four years' is not correct because 'used to' isn't used to specify length of time.

In other words, you can say 'I used to work in the store', but if you want to say how long you worked in the store, you must use the past simple: 'I worked in the store for four years'.

Thanks again for your comment! I hope you don't mind me correcting this minor error.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Xuy_en le dim 31/07/2016 - 10:21

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Could you please help me to distinguish the diffencences between these 2 sentences follow? 1. Up to now, I have never seen such a fat man. 2. Up to then, I had never seen such a fat man. Why can't i write " Up to then, I have never seen such a fat man." ? Thank you !

Hello Xuy_en,

Sentence 1 means 'up to the present moment'. Sentence 2 means 'up to a past moment'. You cannot mix a present form ('have never seen') with a past time reference ('then').

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Montri le ven 29/07/2016 - 10:45

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Hello Krik, If I want to say someone: -I was a student a trainee at A hotel for 3 months. -I had been a student trainee at A hotel for 3 months. -I used to be a student trainee at A hotel for 3 months. All of them are the same meaning or not? if they are the same meaning, I can pick either one of them to say, Am i correct?

Hello Montri,

First of all, I don't think the phrase 'a student trainee' makes sense. Both of these describe someone who is learning, so they are repetitive. In school or college we would describe someone as a 'student' and in the workplace as a 'trainee', so 'trainee' seems the more appropriate here. I'm also confused as to why 'A hotel' is capitalised.

As far as the verbs go, all are possible but each has a different meaning. Which is correct will depend upon the context in which it is used, not just this one sentence. To see the meanings of each look up past simple, past perfect and used to on our site.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par pyramid le mer 27/07/2016 - 09:28

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dear sir/madam, why should we not use PAST PERFECT to show single action in the past is/are there reason/s ? i had had she had been please help

Soumis par Amir-A le lun 25/07/2016 - 20:52

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Hi , I have a question regarding two of the exercises. In the sentence "If she could see him now, she'd be so proud." why is it considered as past tense is used to describe the present or future in a conditional statement. No matter how I look at it I can't figure out how it is past tense , to me it seems more like a hypothetical statement. Similarly, could you explain how "If you moved abroad, you might never see them again." is considered a hypothetical statement and not a conditional talking about the future? Thank you so much

Hi Amir-A,

In conditional sentences, past forms can be used to describe present or future actions or states which are unlikely or impossible. The key is whether or not a condition is considered likely/possible or unlikely/impossible. For example, both of these sentences describe the same future condition:

If it rains tomorrow we'll have to stay indoors. [the speaker thinks rain is likely]

If it rained tomorrow we'd have to stay indoors. [the speaker does not expect rain]

For more information on conditional and hypothetical forms see these pages: here, herehere and here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ice le mer 20/07/2016 - 10:47

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I tried to use past perfect to wrote this sentence,but I'm not sure it true or fault. I wish you can helped me if you had time. "Could I brought these chocolate to camping if you had agreed."

Hello Ice,

I'm afraid that sentence isn't grammatically correct. I'd be happy to help you make it correct, but I don't understand exactly what you want to say. If you're talking about a camping trip that already happened that you didn't bring chocolate to, you could use a third conditional construction here: 'Could I have brought this chocolate camping if you had agreed?'

If you mean something else, please explain it a bit and we'll do our best to help you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par suryachaitanya le lun 04/07/2016 - 12:41

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1) Sir can/could you Please help me. Which form should be used present/past, for a request. 2) Jessica would chastise him Or Jessica would have chastised him. Here Jessica is his daughter who is expired.

Hello suryachaitanya,

In general, both the past and present can be used for requests.

'would have chastisted' is the appropriate form for someone who has passed away but whom you think would have done something now. See our Conditionals 2 page for more on this.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Moka 18 le dim 12/06/2016 - 18:12

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hello teacher please If My country is Egypt and I wane take about England please what is the difference between - I was living in England -I lived in England -I have lived in England -I have been lived in England -I have been living in England

Hello Moka 18,

We try to answer questions in the comments section where possible but the questions need to be concrete and precise; I'm afraid it's not possible for us to explain multiple verb forms in this way. It would require pages of explanation! However, we do have pages of explanation on these forms with examples and descriptons. You can find them in this grammar section. Your sentences are examples of (in order):

past continuous

past simple

present perfect

present perfect continuous

'I have been lived in England' is an incorrect sentence.

You can find information on each of these in the grammar sections here and here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Rafael darn le jeu 09/06/2016 - 15:03

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Hello could you please clarify these statements 1. My brother has twice as many books as I do 2. My brother has books twice as many as I do Is no 2 wrong

Soumis par faizkhan le lun 06/06/2016 - 12:43

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Hi sir, I have a confusion in past perfect. As I learn before we use it : For actions that happened before a past event : In reported speech : In conditional sentences. For example: when I reached the station the train had gone. This is the way I learn this tense bt i don't understand when we said: I had loved, I had worked is this correct pls explain

Soumis par Kirk le lun 06/06/2016 - 13:39

En réponse à par faizkhan

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Hello faizkhan,

Like many verb forms, you need to know the context to make sense of them. 'I had love' and 'I had worked' are correctly formed past perfect verbs, but I'm afraid I can't tell you if they're used correctly without knowing the sentences that come before and after them.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello memol95,

Replies to comments appear directly below the original comment. Please remember that while we try to answer as many comments are possible, that does not mean that all comments receive replies! We are a small team here at LearnEnglish and it is not possible for us to reply to all comments and questions.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Kaewnutwararat le mer 18/05/2016 - 21:29

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Hello all, I am not sure that this sentences is could be past continuous or past perfect. They watched TV from 7.30 until 9.00. I arrived at 7.30. When i arrived, they were watching TV. My English is not good so hope you all can understand it. Thank you

Hello Kaewnutwararat,

The three sentences you wrote make sense and are correct. In the first sentence, 'were watching' is also possible, depending on the wider context, but 'watched' is also correct in general.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par epidietics le mar 08/03/2016 - 04:08

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If David was here, he'd know what to do. After IF the rule as I was taught in university is WERE, i.e. If David WERE here, he'd know what to do. curious who is writing this stuff?

Hello epidietics,

'were' is considered the best form in traditional grammars, but the truth is that people have long used both 'was' and 'were' interchangeably in second conditional constructions. So you could say it the way you prefer, but 'was' is also perfectly correct. 

These grammar pages were written by David Willis, a well-known applied linguist, and in general reflect the way standard varieties of English are spoken.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Conroy le mar 16/02/2016 - 05:29

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Hi Sir, I am confusing to use present or past tense about this sentence. May I know which one is correct? 1) One month ago, he said that the abbreviation of Oxford University Press was OUP. 2) One month ago, he said that the abbreviation of Oxford University Press is OUP.

Soumis par Kirk le mar 16/02/2016 - 07:40

En réponse à par Conroy

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Hello Conroy,

Both forms are correct here. 'was' focuses more on the time that he said that, and 'is' focuses more on the general truth of what he said.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Jswongjason le dim 14/02/2016 - 04:16

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Hello team, I would like to know that can I use "was" in a past tense essay even though I am still doing it or having it now?

Hello Jswongjason,

I would expect that you can, but without knowing the particular context I cannot say more than that.

 


Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I'll give 2 examples now :) - I was a happy kid (still maintain now) - I was a male (still mantain now) ? Thanks

Hello Jswongjason,

Normally, our gender does not change, so if you use a past form for something like 'I was a male' then you are implying that you are a male no longer, so this is a rather odd use unless your gender has changed. You might use the past tense in conjunction with another action: I was a male, which was unusual on that course.

I'm afraid, however, that your question is asking for a general rule when it really depends on particular examples and specific contexts. Which tense would be appropriate depends on the text as a whole, not individual sentences. As I showed above, even a very unusual sentence could be possible given a particular context.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sabago le lun 01/02/2016 - 14:37

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can you explain clearly the difference between [1] I WISH I WERE TALLER and [2] IF I WERE TALLER.and [1] I WISH I WERE DEAD.and [2] IF I WERE DEAD. I know these sentences are in subjunctive mood.I am asking the difference

Hello sabago,

'I wish' is usually used to express regret or sadness over a present situation; if you say 'I wish I were taller' it means that you are not happy about being short. See our wish and if only page for more.

In the clause you ask about 'If' is used to talk about a situation that is not true, because if you say 'if I were dead' you are of course alive. See our conditionals 1 page for more on this.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par kader05 le lun 11/01/2016 - 15:31

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Hello, when we use the present perfect continuous and p.p.c ? i am really confused ? i hope you will help me !!

Soumis par Dost Muhammad le sam 09/01/2016 - 09:40

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Sir, I am confusing about these two sentence 1) I was buy a new car. 2) I had bought a new car. Both sentences are grammatically correct or not ? I am Beginner

Soumis par Kirk le sam 09/01/2016 - 13:33

En réponse à par Dost Muhammad

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Hello Dost Muhammad,

Sentence 1) is not correct. Perhaps you meant 'I bought a new car' ('bought' = past simple) or 'I was buying a new car' (past continuous)? 

Sentence 2) uses the past perfect and is correct.

Best wishes,
Kirk​
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Dragos Chiva le mer 06/01/2016 - 17:13

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Good evening, I tried to solve the activity at the "Past Tense" chapter and I found myself stuck in a problem that has not got an obvious way of solving for me as a non-native English user.Here are the examples that are controversial for me: Sentence 1-If David was here, he'd know what to do. The valid answer to this question is: The Past Tense is used to describe present or future in a conditional statement Sentence 2-If you moved abroad, you might never see them again. The valid answer to this question is:The past tense is used to make a hypothetical statement (to imagine). I thought that a conditional statement means each statement that contains an "if" but it seems to me that the borders between the two cases are very lax. Will you please help me and supply further criteria that would help me recognize the proper use of each case, whenever I meet it?

Soumis par anandsharma143 le lun 28/12/2015 - 15:48

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Hello team, Which of the following make sense different? 1) I have seen so many people waking on the road. or, 2) I saw too many people waking on the road. Is they similar? or there must be something which we have to use on these sentence on the suitability on the situation. How i can view your answers, as i am new here? i am really enjoying learning from here...

Hello anandsharma143,

Both sentences are grammatically correct. 'So many' emphasises the large number; 'too many' adds information that the number is a bad thing, and that fewer would be better.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Lamastry le sam 05/12/2015 - 08:52

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Hello I have a slight misunderstanding may you please help me. She said me that she was happy. (wrong) She said that she was happy. (correct) My question is " Is possible to say : She said to me that she was happy?

Hello Lamastry,

Yes, that would be fine. You can say 'told me' or 'said to me'.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team