Talking about the past

Level: intermediate

Past events and situations

We use the past simple to talk about:

  • something that happened once in the past:

The film started at seven thirty.
We arrived home before dark.

  • something that was true for some time in the past:

Everybody worked hard through the winter.
We stayed with our friends in London.

When we talk about something that happened several times in the past, we use the past simple:

Most evenings, we stayed at home and watched DVDs.
Sometimes they went out for a meal.

or used to:

Most evenings, we used to stay at home and watch DVDs.
We used to go for a swim every morning.

or would:

Most evenings, he would take the dog for a walk.
They would often visit friends in Europe.

We do not normally use would with stative verbs. We use the past simple or used to instead:

He would looked much older than he does now. (NOT would look)
We would used to feel very cold in winter. (NOT would feel)

Past simple, used to and would 1

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We use the past continuous:

  • for something that happened before and after a specific time in the past:

It was just after ten. I was watching the news on TV.
At half-time we were losing 1–0.

  • for something that happened before and after another action in the past:

He broke his leg when he was playing rugby.
She saw Jim as he was driving away.

Past simple and past continuous 1

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The past in the past

We use the past perfect when we are looking back from a point in the past to something earlier in the past:

Helen suddenly remembered she had left her keys in the car.
When we had done all our shopping, we caught the bus home.
They wanted to buy a new computer, but they hadn't saved enough money.
They would have bought a new computer if they had saved enough money.

Past simple, continuous and perfect 1

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The past and the present

We use the present perfect:

  • for something that started in the past and continues in the present:

We have lived here since 2017. [and we still live here]
I have been working at the university for over ten years.

  • for something that happened in the past but is important in the present:

I can't open the door. I've left my keys in the car.
Jenny has found a new job. She works in a supermarket now.

Be careful!
We do not use the present perfect with adverbials which refer to a finished past time:
yesterday last week/month/year in 2010 when I was younger  etc.

I have seen that film yesterday.
We have just bought a new car last week.
When we were children we have been to California.

but we can use the present perfect with adverbials which refer to a time which is not yet finished:

today this morning/week/year now that I am eighteen   etc.

Have you seen Helen today?
We have bought a new car this week.

Present perfect and past simple 1

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Present perfect and past simple 2

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The future in the past

When we talk about the future from a time in the past we use:

  • would as the past tense of will:

He thought he would buy one the next day.
Everyone was excited. The party would be fun.

  • was/were going to:

John was going to drive and Mary was going to follow on her bicycle.
It was Friday. We were going to set off the next day.

It was September. Mary was starting school the next week.
We were very busy. Our guests were arriving soon and we had to get their room ready.

The past with modal verbs

could is the past tense of can:

You could get a good meal for a pound when I was a boy.

would is the past tense of will:

He said he would come but he forgot.

We use may have, might have and could have to show that something has possibly happened in the past:

I'll telephone him. He might have got home early.
She's very late. She could have missed her train.

We use should have as the past form of should:

I didn't know he was ill. He should have told me.
You shouldn't have spent so much money.

We use would have and could have to talk about something that was possible in the past but did not happen:

I could have gone to Mexico for my holiday but it was too expensive.
I would have called you, but I had forgotten my phone.
They would have gone out if the weather had been better.

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Hello manuel24,

Those sentences are not the same.

Mary was starting school next week means that it was her intention to start school. There is no information about whether or not she did start.

Mary would have started... tells us that she did not start school. It describes something that was intended but did not come to pass for some reason.

The difference between the last two sentences is similar, but it makes little sense to discuss them without a context. Modal verbs such as would are context dependent. Your sentence could refer to past habits or to a hypothetical situation in the present or future, for example.

 

I suggest you take a look at our section on modal verbs:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/modal-verbs

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank youPeter,to talk about arrangements can we use present continuous and "going to"indifferently?so can I say "Mary is going to start school next week?

Hello manuel24,

There is a difference in the use of these forms. Please take a look at our pages on the topic as I think these will clarify it for you. If you still have a question after reading about it on those pages, please post your question there and we'll be try to answer it for you.

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/intermediate-grammar/future-plans

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/talking-about-future

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par manuel24 le mar 13/11/2018 - 14:20

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hello everyone,i don't understand the construction of the following sentence: "But his career could have panned out very differently had he opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager".Why "had is not after the subject?shouldn't there be "if" after "differently"?

Hello manuel24,

There are two ways to phrase this sentence.

You can use if:

But his career could have panned out very differently if he had opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager.

Or you can use the inverted form:

But his career could have panned out very differently had he opted to move to stanford bridge as a teenager.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Aya salah le mer 07/11/2018 - 11:20

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Hello learn english team I want to ask something about last sentence in the excersice why the answer is suffered not had suffered Aren’t they remembering their suffer so it an event happened and finished and then they start remembering

Hi Aya salah,

The past perfect is used when there is another point of reference in the past. In the first part of this sentence, the point of reference is the present (they find it difficult now), not the past, so the past perfect would be strange here unless there were some other mention of the past in the text. Since this sentence stands alone (i.e. is not part of another text), the best answer is in the past simple.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Hopefinder le sam 20/10/2018 - 20:09

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Hello Learn English team, I have found this sentence online which was mentioned as a general statement. "Facebook was basically invented to accomplish a social mission" The question is, is the using of model "was" correct here? I think if it is replaced by "is" word , the sentence will be perfect - as long as "Facebook" still exists, am I correct?

Hello Hopefinder,

'Was' here is not a modal verb but an auxiliary verb. It is part of the passive verb phrase 'was invented'.

Facebook still exists, of course. However, the sentence is not about it existing but rather it being invented, and the invention was at one moment in the past. Therefore, you cannot replace 'was' with 'is' here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par MBAZAROV le sam 20/10/2018 - 08:55

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Please...Why are they sentences past simple and not past perfect when they have two past events? Before Lola went out, she ate her lunch. They interviewed 30 people before they found the right person. Before Anna moved to London, she lived in Germany. In all these sentences, would it be wrong to use the past perfect in the first action? Thank you

Hello Mbazarov,

When the context makes it clear which event happened first, the past perfect is often not used, especially in informal situations. If you were going to use the past perfect in these sentences, it would be used for the action that came first in time:

Before Lola went out, she had eaten her lunch.
They had interviewed 30 people before they found the right person.
Before Anna moved to London, she had lived in Germany.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par manuel24 le lun 09/07/2018 - 09:54

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hello,shouldn't be the simple past in these example? "you'are late..where have you been?" the mother said to her daughter "I herewith acknowledge that i have received a baggage delivery receipt from sogaerdyn s.p.a...."

Hi manuel24,

The mother could also say 'Where were you?'. By saying 'Where have you been?' she's showing how her worry (anger?) about the daughter's whereabouts began in the past but is still relevant now.

In the second case, the past simple would also be possible, though I'd say the present perfect is more standard in this kind of formulaic statement. As above, it refers to something that happened in the past but is important in the present (see the fourth bullet point on our present perfect page).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jitu_jaga le mer 04/07/2018 - 23:54

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Hi, A person stood/was standing behind me. Both the sentence has same meaning or not. Could I write, 'when I was a kid, a tree was standing infront of our house. I don't understand when to use simple or continuous form of verb 'stand'. Please explain it. Thanks in advance.

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 05/07/2018 - 07:08

En réponse à par jitu_jaga

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Hello jitu_jaga,

There is nothing unusual about the verb 'stand' here. It is used the same way as any other verb in terms of simple and continuous forms.

The continuous form is used when an action is interrupted by another action (the tree was standing in front of our house when lightning hit it) or when we want to emphasise that an action of a temporary nature (a tree was standing there but we soon knocked it down to make space).

Often the choice of simple or continuous is a choice for the speaker, depending on what they want to emphasise.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, I understand this but I was doing an exercise from book ' A practical English grammar by Thomas and Martinet'. Here it is ' The detective was following an old man who (wear)_ a black hat.' The answer was , wore/was wearing. How both answers possible here? When I read books I find most of the times authors use stood/was standing interchanably. Earlier you explained me about the verb 'live'. I live in London(permanent) I am living in London(temperary) I worked in that company(permanent) I was working in that company(temperary). Do the verbs sit, lie, stand and wear are used in similar fashion.? Please explain it?

Soumis par Peter M. le dim 08/07/2018 - 07:29

En réponse à par jitu_jaga

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Hi jitu_jaga,

 

The form was wearing suggests something which is in progress and is temporary, while the form wore suggests something which is normal or typical.

 

If you say was wearing then you are describing the man's appearance at a particular time. If you say wore then you are describing the man's typical appearance, just as you might say a man who had glasses or a man who had red hair.

 

Please note that we generally provide explanations of the material on our own pages, not material from other publications. We are a small team here and have limited resources, unfortunately.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Lal le lun 02/07/2018 - 10:22

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Hello Sir Please let me know whether these sentences give the same meaning or different; She stayed in London for three months. She has stayed in London for three months She has been staying in London for three months. Thank you. Regards Lal

Hello Lal,

The first sentence has a different meaning; the other two are quite similar but differ in emphasis. The first sentence (she stayed) describes finished past time. We know that her time in London finished in the past and that she is not still staying in London now.

The second and third sentences describe an action which began in the past and continues up to the present. The second sentence (has stayed) does not tell us anything about whether she will remain in London in the future. The third sentence (has been staying) suggests that he stay is not finished and that she will continue to stay in London.

You can read more about the present perfect simple (the second sentence) and continuous (the third sentence) on this page.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jitu_jaga le jeu 21/06/2018 - 08:58

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Hi, We use used to/past simple/ would for repeated action in the past. Is there any subtle differences between these three or between the use of simple past or would for past repeated action and could you explain from where the idea of using 'would' for past repeated action came?

Soumis par Kirk le mer 27/06/2018 - 17:19

En réponse à par jitu_jaga

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Hi jitu_jaga,

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the history of this use of 'would' to be able to say anything about that.

'used to' means that the action is no longer performed; 'would' doesn't state this explicitly, but puts the focus on the past in a way that suggests it. The past simple is probably the most general of the three, as it has many other uses and without context it could mean any of them.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par manuel24 le dim 17/06/2018 - 15:28

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hello! "What could have been love Should have been the only thing that was ever meant to be." that is a verse in a aerosmith's song.. first of all i don't understand why there is not the present perfect even at the end,in addition the use of the present perfect at first means is there a connection to the present?

Soumis par Kirk le dim 17/06/2018 - 15:39

En réponse à par manuel24

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Hi manuel24,

There is no present perfect form in these verses. Instead, there is 'could' + 'have been' and 'should' + 'have been'. This grammar is explained in some detail on our modals + have page, but basically it sounds like the idea is that there was the possibility of love and the singer wishes that love had flowered.

I hope this helps, but if you have further questions please don't hesitate to ask.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jitu_jaga le sam 16/06/2018 - 12:18

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Hi, 1. I finished eating. 2.I was finished eating. Do these two sentences give same meaning? Is the 2nd sentence in passive voice? Similarly, I have done and I am done, and I have gone mad and I am gone mad. Please explain it. I don't understand.

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 18/06/2018 - 07:30

En réponse à par jitu_jaga

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Hello jitu_jaga,

The second sentence is an informal form which I would say is non-standard. It is used primarily in slang and certain dialects and it has the meaning of 'I had finished'. A similar form which you can sometimes find, which is also non-standard, is 'I was done + verbing' (I was done talking to him), and this also has the meaning of 'I had finished'.

In terms of form, these look like passive constructions. However, as I said above, they do not have a passive meaning and are rather very informal non-standard/dialectical forms.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

But, sometimes, In movie I listen ' I am done ' or ' I am gone mad'. That means 'I have done' or " I have gone mad' which are the active meaning.

Hello jitu_jaga,

A lot of the language in films is non-standard. 'I am gone mad' is a good example of this; if you want to speak informally in certain situations, it might be appropriate, but in most I wouldn't recommend imitating it.

'I am done' is different and is a standard, though informal, form. It means 'I have finished it' or 'it is finished'. See the Cambridge Dictionary entry for 'done' for more on this.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jitu_jaga le ven 15/06/2018 - 08:55

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Hi, I have doubts reagarding use of verb ' stay'. 1. when I was a child, I stayed with my mom or I was staying with my mom. Could u explain which one would be correct and why? 2. During summer I stayed or was staying in Scotland. Please explain it . I don't understand this.

Soumis par jitu_jaga le ven 15/06/2018 - 08:44

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Hi, whenever I read a book I find 'Once upon a time there lived a king' not they write' was living a king'. similarly 'when I was a child I lived in italy' not 'was living in italy'. would it be wrong to use continuous tense or its meaning would be changed? could u explain it? 2. while I was living in Poland I met a beautiful girl. In this sentence why continuous tense is used and not simple past. Please explain how can I use live in correct tense?

Hi jitu_jaga,

As far as the fairy tale example goes, I would say that this is a fixed expression and not an example of a grammatical rule.

 

We use continuous forms to show an ongoing activity which is unfinished, temporary or interrupted, and this is key to your examples.

When I was a child I lived in Italy... tells us that Italy was your home.

When I was a child I was living in Italy... tells us that your time in Italy was temporary and that you did not see it as your home, but only a place you spent some time in.

 

The difference here is psychological rather than factual. Let's say a British person moves to France and remains there for 30 years. They can describe their situation as I live in France or I'm living in France. Both are correct. The first tells us that the person sees France as their permanent home. The second tells us that they see it as temporary, even after 30 years, and expect one day to leave.

 

Your other example show interrupted time:

While I was living in Poland I met a beautiful girl

The continuous form makes it clear that the meeting happened during the time of the other activity (living in Poland). In this context there is little chance of confusion, but in other contexts it may not be clear. For example:

When I spoke to him, he got angry.

While I was speaking to him, he got angry.

The first sentence suggests that the act of speaking to him made him angry. The second sentence suggests that he was not angry when I started speaking to him but became angry during the conversation.

 

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Peter for writing this long explanation and spending your valuable time. Now I am understanding it more. Actually English is little bit different from my native language. Have a good day.

Soumis par uchiha itache le ven 08/06/2018 - 01:23

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Hello! I have an exam after 2 days . please reply as soon as possible. There're a lot of questions in my book about ( covered with/by/in) what's the difference between them? Do we say the earth is covered by or with forest? And the forest is covered with or by or in trees?

Soumis par uchiha itache le mer 06/06/2018 - 04:44

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About that sentence " they left their home at 6 am " and they would reach London some 12 hours later" ...there is no context. I read it in my school book and it says that in this sentence they already reached London but it doesn't explain why . is there a rule or something I could follow ? My book only gave some sentences and tells which future action happened or not in the past. I got them all but this one above . how do I know they arrived as the book says when there is no context.

Soumis par uchiha itache le mar 05/06/2018 - 16:18

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They left their home at 6 am and they would reach London some 12 hours later . Does this sentence mean they arrived or not ? And how can I know? Thanks in advance

Hi uchiha itache,

What's the context for this sentence? It sounds as if it means that they did arrive in London, but it would probably be easier to explain this in reference to the context.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par manuel24 le mer 30/05/2018 - 12:00

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hello everybody,I would say if these sentences are correct: 1-It's been a long time since I spoke italian 2--It's been a long time since I have spoken italian 3-I haven't spoken italian for a long time 4-I haven't been speaking for a long time what differences in meaning are there between the first one and the second one and between the third one and the fourth one?

Hello manuel24,

All of those sentences are correct. I don't think there is a difference in meaning between the first two sentences, and I think they are used interchangeably by most speakers. You could also use 'It's a long time since...' in each sentence. Again, the meaning does not change.

In the second pair of sentences the difference is subtle and more one of emphasis and context than anything else. I think the second sentence is more likely to be used when the person is in the middle of the conversation. In other words, while the person is speaking, they would say 'I haven't been speaking...' whereas 'I haven't spoken...' would be more likely before or after the conversation. However, as I said these are very subtle distinctions and certainly not fixed rules of any kind. You would be fine using the two forms interchangeably, I would say.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team 

hello peter,which is the time period in the sentences -It's been a long time since I spoke italian and -It's been a long time since I have spoken italian? it isn't a unfinished time and so shouldn't we only use the present perfect? why can we use the past tense?

Hello manuel24,

We often use since to refer back to a finished time in the past:

I've lived here since I was born.

This boxer has not lost since he became a professional.

I have been very busy since I started the new job.

 

In a way, the past form here is the more normal form. The past form (since I spoke) describes a finished time in the past, just like the examples above. The present perfect form (since I have spoken) is a rather odd construction which people use but which is conceptually rather strange. It has a sense of it's been a long time since I have been a person who has the experience of speaking Italian, I suppose. However, both are used in modern English and both are correct.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 04/06/2018 - 07:18

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Hello manuel24,

Yes, both sentences tell us that the person has not spoken Italian for a long time. That's correct, and that's what I explained in my earlier answer. The difference between them is quite subtle, as I said, and they are used interchangeably in most contexts. I don't know what you mean by 'negative sentences', however.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

therefore they mean that the person don't speak italian at the moment.right?

Hello manuel24,

Not necessarily. To know this we would need to know the context in which the sentence is used. The speaker could be trying to speak Italian and say this as an explanation of why they are not very fluent: I'm sorry! It's been a long time since I have spoken Italian!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

can you tell me a context in which we can say "It's been a long time since I spoke italian"?

Hello manuel24,

The context in my previous answer (a person having trouble speaking Italian and trying to explain this) is fine. As I said, the two forms can be used interchangeably.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par JHRoss le lun 28/05/2018 - 11:43

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Can I use present perfect continuous in the example "We have lived here since 2007." ? "We have been living here since 2007." it would be wrong?

Hello JHRoss,

Both the simple and continuous forms are possible here and there is little difference in meaning. The continuous form emphasises the ongoing duration of the action, while the simple form emphasises the action as a whole. We would tend to use the simple form if we are interested in the result of the action or the achievement it represents, or if the action is complete, while the continuous would usually be used when we want to focus on the duration of the activity, the effort it entails or if the activity is not finished.

You can read more about the present perfect simple and continuous on this page.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par toandue le dim 18/03/2018 - 17:03

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Hello The LearnEnglish Team, I've once seen the following sentence. ''At school I disliked the maths teacher because he was always picking/always picked on me." As my understanding, the past continuous is used here to express annoyance and the past simple describes an action happened in the past. Is this possible to use "used to" or "would" in this case, since the action is a repeated action in the past? Thank you in advanced, Toan

Hello toandue,

It's certainly grammatically possible to use both 'would' and 'used to + infinitive' here. The past continuous or past simple form sounds a little more natural to me, particularly if you use 'always' in the sentence. I suppose this is because it would be a little redundant with 'would' or 'used to', though not grammatically incorrect. 

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Elton Cesar da Silva le lun 05/03/2018 - 13:01

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Hello LearnEnglish Team, What's the difference between "used to" and "would" when talking about past habits? Thanks, Elton