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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Soumis par Danielyong96 le mar 27/01/2015 - 15:33

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I would like to know, what is the difference between this two sentences 1. She had been gone ten years 2. She had gone ten years Plus, I 'm confused why "had been gone" is used and can be used

Hello Danielyong96,

Although the sentences look similar, they in fact have different verbs in them. The first sentence is an example of [be + past participle/adjective], while the second sentence is an example of 'go' in the past perfect. We can see this if we change them into simple past forms:

1. She was gone ten years.

2. She went ten years.

The first sentence you quote is fine; it means she was not 'here' (where the speaker is).

The second sentence needs more information for it to make sense, such as a destination of some kind: 'She had gone away from her home for ten years'.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par rishi1234567 le dim 18/01/2015 - 13:26

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Hello Teacher, What is the difference between below sentences: 1) The volcanic ash closed several airports. 2) The volcanic ash had closed several airports.

Hello rishi,

The verb in sentence 1 is in the past simple tense and the verb in 2 is in the past perfect tense. If you look in the English Grammar box on the right under 'past tense', you'll see links to past simple and past perfect pages, where you'll find detailed explanations and examples of these forms.

I think those pages should answer your question, but if you have any further questions, please let us know.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par MONAD ABBASI le lun 08/12/2014 - 12:10

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Hi, could you please clear my concept about past tense actually I'm very confused with these verbs .. When we use was, were, did, ed form like decided and I read when we use was after this we use base form like was flood but I heard in news they use word was flooded so can you explain I'm which condition we use ed forms after was ..

Hello MONAD ASSASI,

I'm afraid I can't provide explanations of multiple forms in the comments sections here - I would have to write a book to cover all of that! I recommend you use the links in the grammar section, especially the part about verbs, to research these areas.

Perhaps one thing that I can clarify is the difference between 'flooded' and 'was flooded'. Both are past forms, but 'flooded' is an active past simple form, while 'was flooded' (or 'were flooded') is a passive past simple form. You can find more about active and passive forms here.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you sir for reply .. Can you please tell when and where we use above verb . One more question how we decided in past tense we should use was or did ?? Any specific rules in english for using this did or that? And which condition we can't use use both and we use only active form of verb in tense ???

Hello Monad Abbasi,

You can see examples of how 'flood' and 'flooded' are used by searching for them in our dictionary - see the handy Cambridge Dictionaries Online search box on the right.

As for the past tenses, did you read the explanation above? It is an overview of the different past tenses, and then in the English Grammar menu on the right side of this page, if you click on 'past tense', you'll see there are explanations of each of these three tenses there, e.g. past simple. I believe that these explanations will answer all of your questions, but if not, please feel free to ask us again on one of those pages. Please make your question as specific as possible - we're not able to write lengthy responses.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Yeolanda le dim 07/12/2014 - 07:59

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Hello, teachers. Is it right to use past simple for stating an activity that you currently see? For example : (He dragged the chair and sat in front of me.) Or should i use the present simple instead? Thank you. :)

Hi Yeolanda,

Probably not, though it really depends on what you want to communicate. If you are speaking about the action as it is happening, the most typical form would be the present continuous. Please note, however, that in this sentence there are two separate actions, as you can't drag a chair and sit in it at the same time. As the actions are separate, there is a sequence, i.e. one happens before the other. So you could say, for example, 'He dragged the chair and is sitting in it' but not 'He is dragging the chair and sitting in it'.

I hope this helps.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par davide32 le mar 30/09/2014 - 08:29

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hello teacher :-) i'm studying the past tense, but i don't understand these cases: hypotheses and wishes(can you explain this cases? ) what's wishes?

Hello davide32,

I'd suggest you look up 'wish' (which is the singular of 'wishes') in the dictionary so that you can get a good sense for what it means, but basically a wish is something we want, and in this case, refers to things we want that we see as unlikely or impossible to obtain. In the third example sentence ('I wish I hadn’t spent so much money last month'), I can't change what I did in the past, but I'm expressing how I wish I had acted last month.

You might find it useful to look at our Conditionals 1 and Conditionals 2 pages, where you'll see the past tense used in a similar way in the second and third conditional structures. Please take a look and then let us know if you have any further questions.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Source le lun 22/09/2014 - 07:59

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Hi, we know that "had to" is a past form of the "have to" but sometimes i see this form as well which is : He had had to do sth - how this form can be understood and please explain what does it really mean to use such kind of grammatic form?? how can we translate this form ? do we need to understand this as Past perfect or what?? if not please explain its meaning Thank you very much in advance - See more at: http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/verbs/past-tense#comment-65967
I want some explanation there is not any explanation in the provided link about my question ... Please give some explanation if possible

Hello Source,

'had had' is indeed the past perfect form of the verb 'have'. The first 'had' is the auxiliary verb 'have' in the simple past, which is what is used to form the past perfect, and the second 'had' is the past participle of the main verb 'have'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par katita26 le jeu 28/08/2014 - 04:31

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Hello Everyone, could someone help me? I need to practice Conditional Sentences With Mixed Time Frames for example If I had been working at the restaurant last ight, I would have waited on your table. I don't know how to write this kind of sentence, I know that each one depend for situation, time, but I am confused. help me ;( thanks
Hello, There is some information on these pages which might help you: http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/verbs/verbs-time-clauses-and-if-clauses http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/grammar-reference/conditionals-2 Best wishes, Adam The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par vishesh le mar 19/08/2014 - 09:08

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Differnce among these three sentences....... 1.it had occured to me that i forgot ur birthday.. 2.it occured to me that i forgot ur birthday... 3.it has occured to me that i forgot ur birthday.. Thanx in advance......

Hello videsh,

The difference is the verb form (tense and aspect) used in each sentence.

The first sentence is an example of a past perfect form [had + past participle] and you can find an explanation of when this is used here.

The first sentence is an example of a past simple form [the second form of the verb] and you can find an explanation of when this is used here.

The first sentence is an example of a present perfect form [has or have + past participle] and you can find an explanation of when this is used here.

I hope those links are helpful.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par bashkim le lun 04/08/2014 - 20:45

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Hello guys how are you ? I hope you are all fine. I hope some one can help me with my problem. Could someone explain me these two things : past perfect and past perfect progressive : When I have to use these tense and what are the difference . I know how to built the grammatical structure, but I have no idea I have to use past perfect or past perfect progressive.

Hello bashkim,

This is a very large area which requires a detailed and long answer, rather more than we can provide in this comments section. However, a good starting point would be this page, which is all about the past perfect.

All continuous forms are similar in terms of the additional information they express, whether present continuous, past continuous or past perfect continuous. You can can find information about the continuous aspect on this page, which should help you.

I think those pages should be a good starting point for you. Once you've worked through them if you have any specific questions about examples then we'll be happy to respond to them in the comments sections of those pages.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank very much for your help. I will work first the pages through. I will do as you recommended . best regards bashkim

Soumis par Oscas Po le ven 18/07/2014 - 13:07

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hi i don't know when and how to use "could have" please assist me with examples

Soumis par Peter M. le sam 19/07/2014 - 07:28

En réponse à par Oscas Po

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Hi Oscas Po,

You can find information on this topic on this page.

To look up aspects of grammar you want to study you can use the links at the top of the page ('Grammar & Vocabulary'), or the search window on the right of the page.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jason.bolster le sam 28/06/2014 - 02:08

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Some people say you need to use "that" in making wishes or hypothetical sentences. Some people say "I wish you could see this" is wrong it should be "I wish that you could see this." What do you think?

Hello Jason,

As far as I know, most English speakers would accept such sentences without "that" and so I would encourage our users to recognise and accept that. If you believe using "that" is more proper, please by all means use it!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sharbani1010 le dim 22/06/2014 - 22:57

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I recently learnt that the following sentence is incorrect, " I am living in London" I wish to ask you if it is true or not. I Could not understand what was wrong about it. Thank you

Hello Sharbani1010,

That sentence is perfectly correct as it stands.  Of course, in certain contexts it may not be correct.  For example, if we wanted to add a length of time using 'for' or 'since' then we would use the present perfect:

I've been living in London for five years.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Corsair777 le mar 03/06/2014 - 05:05

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Hi, I am confused when I have a past tense in one part of a sentence but then present tense/facts in the next part For example, are these sentences gramatically correct? 1. The graph shows that there are 10 recorded deaths in this area where people fell to their deaths when doing construction. Should I use are or were in "There are"? Should I use fall instead of fell? It's confusing to me because the deaths obviously occurred in the past, but I also see them as "Facts" because these people did fall to their deaths? Or are there multiple ways to express this? 2. He says that I have a talent; He said that I had a talent; He said that I have a talent Based on the "reported speech" rule, then the first 2 should be okay. What about the last one? Can I use the last one because he said it in the past, but I still have the talent even as we speak now? 3. He wanted to know if there are people jaywalking in this street. Is this correct, assuming that he is still interested now to find out if there are people jaywalking (and they are still doing it now)? There are other examples I want to ask about, but hopefully your explanations will help me understand Thanks

Hello Corsair777,

In order:

1. You can say both 'are' and 'were' here.  If you say 'are' then you are talking about the numbers - in other words, you are talking about the graph, which is in front of you as you speak.  If you say 'were' then you are talking about the real events which occured in the past.

2. Again, all three sentences are possible here.  'Says' implies that this is still the speaker's opinion; 'said' tells us that this was his opinion, but not whether or not it is still current.  The choice of 'have' or 'had' is similar.  'Have' tells us that you had the talent at the time of the comment and still have it now; 'had' tells us that it was true at that time but not whether or not it is still the case.

3. The same principle applies as above.  'Wanted' tells us that this was his goal in the past, but not whether or not it is still his goal.  'Wants' would tell us that it is his goal now.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your reply What about these sentences, are they correct? The reason you were successful in the job application was because of your finely polished resume The reason you were successful in the job application is because of your finely polished resume Thanks in advance

Hello Corsair777,

Again, I would accept both of these sentences.  The reason can be seen as both present (it is still the reason now) and past (it was the cause at the time), and so both 'is' and 'was' are possible.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Rudolphus le lun 26/05/2014 - 08:53

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What to make of this sentence: "What can we do if the typhoon really came?" It is not really a second conditional (that would be: "What would we do if the typhoon really came?" The past tense "came" is used to express a hypothesis (but not an impossibility). Perhaps the sentence is a compressed "what if" clause: "What if the typhoon really came--what would we do then? Any thoughts? I'd be most grateful.

Hello Rudolphus,

It's hard for me to comment with certainty without knowing the context in which this sentence occurs.  However, it is a possible sentence, grammatically speaking.  We might say this if the typhoon's arrival was in the past but we are not yet certain if it really happened (perhaps we had heard rumours, but these were not confirmed); we are discussing our possible choices of action if the rumours prove to be true.  As you can see the sentence requires quite a contrived context, and it is not a common construction.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par akhi le ven 16/05/2014 - 03:25

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Hello sir , I have a question,that make me confuse. What is the difference between "was and simple past" For example: "she was promoted" and "she promoted" when do we use "was/were" or "past simple"

Hello akhi,

"promoted" is the verb promote in the simple past tense in the active voice. "was promoted" is the same verb, and also in the simple past tense, but in the passive voice. One our active and passive voice page, you can find an explanation of, examples of, and exercises to practise the difference between these two voices.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par RUSHDAN le ven 09/05/2014 - 05:09

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Hi Peter, I just want to know how to differentiate between "was" and "has"...when to use was and when we can use has? which one is correct? eg: 1.He was signed into a law to create a national card payment system. 2.He has signed into a law to create a national card payment system.

Hello RUSHDAN,

Neither of those sentences is correct, I am afraid.  We would use 'was signed' in a passive sentence where we start with the thing that was signed:

The proposal was signed into law to create a national card payment system.

We would use 'has signed' in a present perfect sentence announcing news of the signing.  This sentence would be active and would start with the person doing the signing:

The president has signed the proposal into law to create a national card payment system.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.  You can find more information on the present perfect on this page and this page and more information on passive forms here.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par ritesh46 le mar 15/04/2014 - 12:13

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Hello sir , my question is - what is the difference between the following tense . 1- past simple & past continuous & past perfect & past perfect continuous. 2- similarly in case of present forms. thank.

Hello yogesh mani tripathi,

I'm afraid that's a question that would need an entire book - or several books - to answer!  In the comments we have space to answer specific question rather than to explain whole chunks of English grammar.  I recommend you work through the verb part of the grammar section on LearnEnglish.  This will take you some time, but it's a very big question which you're asking!

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Learner S le dim 30/03/2014 - 05:58

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Hi sir these conditional sentences are correct 1=If I went to a friend's house for dinner, I usually took a bottle of wine or some flowers. I don't do that anymore. 2=When I had a day off from work, I often went to the beach. Now, I never get time off. 3=If the weather was nice, she often walked to work. Now, she usually drives. 4=Jerry always helped me with my homework when he had time. But he doesn't do that anymore.

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 02/04/2014 - 08:23

En réponse à par Learner S

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Hi Learner S,

Yes, those sentences are all correct.  The structure here is similar to a zero conditional [if + present, (then) + present], with the difference that here the 'always true' information is in the past - it was always true but now is not.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Learner S le ven 28/03/2014 - 07:38

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Hi sir Could you please explain what is difference between conditional sentences and hypothetical sentences..............Is it the unreal conditional are hypothetical and what should we say about real conditional sentences...........I couldn't find any example of difference between real conditional and unreal conditional sentences.........Could you please explain the difference.............

Soumis par Peter M. le sam 29/03/2014 - 09:08

En réponse à par Learner S

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Hello Learner S,

Something is hypothetical if we are not sure whether or not it is true; something is conditional if it depends on something else.  A sentence may be both hypothetical and conditional, course, and this is often the case and results in the two terms being used interchangeably with some examples.

You can find out more about hypothetical and conditional sentences on this page and this page, and  more about conditional forms on this page and this page.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Learner S le mer 26/03/2014 - 20:57

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Hi sir 1=If he were French, he would live in Paris. 2=If she were rich, she would buy a yacht. These are present hypothetical.... The past hypothetical of these sentences 1=If he had been a french,he would have been lived in Paris. 2=If she had been rich,she would have been bought a yacht Am I right?

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 27/03/2014 - 09:00

En réponse à par Learner S

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Hello Learner S,

Those are almost correct, but you have one extra word in each sentence.  The correct sentences would be:

If he had been French, he would have lived in Paris.

If she had been rich, she would have bought a yacht.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par bimsara le dim 02/03/2014 - 02:38

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HELLO THERE! I thought when we use 'IF' it means that is a conditional sentence.But in question 7 and 8 in this exercise they said that they aren't conditional sentences.Could you explain how we identify these things? Thank you.

Hello bimsara,

I think you've misinterpreted the answers to these questions.  It does not say that they are not conditionals; it simply explains the use of the past tense in each sentence.  It is quite possible to form a conditional without a past tense.  Indeed, often there is a choice of using present + will (a first conditional) or past + would (second conditional), and there are various reasons why you might choose the latter, including politeness. In other words, just because the reason for the use of the past tense is, say, politness, it does not mean that the sentence is not a conditional sentence.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team