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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Past simple, used to and would 2

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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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Past simple and past continuous 2

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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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Past simple, continuous and perfect 2

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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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Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 01/12/2016 - 07:51

En réponse à par Ali-k

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Hi Ali-k,

No, that is not a correct sentence. The actions in the sentence are all in the past (the speaker is at the place, so the coming was in the past. It's impossible to be sure without any kind of context, but I would suggest this:

I was watching a movie before I came here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ali-k le jeu 01/12/2016 - 10:45

En réponse à par Peter M.

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Thank you Peter for your response One more question : I have watched several movies, Now I am an expert movie critic. Thanks

Hello Ali-k,

I'm not sure what the question is here but if you want to know if the sentence is correct then the answer is that it is correct grammatically.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ali-k le mar 29/11/2016 - 17:16

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Hi, is this sentence correct? She is going to buy a laptop after she finished (or?finishes) her summer job. ?

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 30/11/2016 - 07:10

En réponse à par Ali-k

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Hello Ali-k,

The correct form here is 'finishes' as the sentence refers to a real or likely future.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you very much. I was wondering about how we can talk about the past in the future tenses, I have found many information in which they explained talking about the future in past tenses but nothing about the past in future .

Hello Ali-k,

I'm not sure if this is what you mean, but you can 'will have' to look into the past from a future time - see our will have or would have page for more on this. There are also some more example sentences on the Cambridge Dictionary page on the future perfect.

If you had something else in mind, please let us know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

hello sir A & B are talking about C. and C suddenly come in says " you wouldn't be talking about me now would you? my question is that why he says wouldn't be talking about me ........ i think he should say you weren't talking about me ...... please correct me if I'm mistaken.

Hello ahmednagar,

C could certainly say 'You weren't talking about me ....' and that would be fine, but the same phrase with 'wouldn't' is also correct because 'would' can be used to talk about a hypothesis or unreal situation. See the page I linked to for other examples of this use of 'would'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par chancornelius le dim 27/11/2016 - 15:11

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"They find it difficult to forget; they suffered tremendous hardship in the war." "They find it difficult to forget; they have suffered tremendous hardship in the war." What's the difference between the two? regards

Hello chancornelius,

We use the past simple when an action or event is seen by the speaker as being finished and in the past - this is the case in the first sentence. We use the present perfect when in some way an action or event which occurred in the past is still continuing or has an ongoing effect in the present - this is the case in the second sentence.

Both sentences are correct and which the speaker would say depends on how they see the hardship. If it is still ongoing, or if its effects are still evident, then the second sentence is more likely. If it is merely a memory of a finished time then the first sentence is more likely.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hello peter,in a previous comment in response to learning(name) about the use of the sentences " 'We had never seen anything quite so extraordinary in our lives" and 'We never saw anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.' you said ".......Thus we would use this(past simple) to talk in a historical sense about someone who is no longer alive: He never saw anything so extraordinary in his life. [he is no longer alive] If the person is still alive, we use a present perfect to show an unfinished time up to the moment of speaking: I've never seen anything so extraordinary in my life. [I am still alive] now i don't understand why we can say "They find it difficult to forget; they suffered tremendous hardship in the war." instead of "They find it difficult to forget; they have suffered tremendous hardship in the war."please help me,thank you in advance.

Hello manuel24,

The key is the time period in which the action takes place. If the time period is open/incomplete (such as a life still not finished or the current year) then the present perfect is used. If the time period is closed/complete (such as a life which is over or the previous year) then the past simple is used.

 

In your example the time period is not the life of the person but rather the war. Compare these two sentences:

They find it difficult to forget; they have suffered tremendous hardship in their lives.

They find it difficult to forget; they suffered tremendous hardship in the war.

In the first sentence, the time period is the people's lives and this is an open time period as they are still alive. In the second sentence the time period is the war and this is a closed time period as the war is over.

 

I hope that clarifies it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Dragonfly le jeu 10/11/2016 - 08:23

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Is this statement written correctly? "I presently think about the past and how it came to be my future."

Hello Dragonfly,

Yes, that is correct. The only thing is that 'presently' is a rather formal word, so it sounds a bit unusual in this context, but the verb tenses are great. Good work!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jarljudele le ven 04/11/2016 - 08:56

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Hello I am confused on the 3. The past and the present examples: 1. "We have lived here since 2007.(and we still live here) Shouldn't we use present perfect continous tense? "We have been living here since 2007." 2. "I have been working at the university for over ten years." "have been working" is a present perfect continous tense not a present perfect tense. Please help me thank you!

Hello jarljudele,

It's possible to use the present perfect continuous in sentence 1, but the present perfect simple is also correct. You might want to read through our Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous page for more on this, and watch the video on this page.

As for your second remark, the present perfect continuous is a form of the present perfect tense, so that statement is not incorrect.

I hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par MCWSL le sam 01/10/2016 - 16:45

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Hello, I wanted to ask about subject, object questions. I have a sentence: Jim should not say that. Who should not say that? What should Jim not say? Are these questions correct? Thank you.

Hello Risa warysha,

I'm not sure exactly which form you are referring to here. Could you provide an example sentence, please, and then we'll be happy to explain it for you?

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sirmee le sam 24/09/2016 - 04:55

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This site is so helpful, I think I have found the wright place to improve my grammar. My question is, should I use I have found or I found. Which one is correct

Hello sirmee,

It's nice to hear that the site is helping you!

You should say 'have found' as this is a past event which has an effect in the present. You should also say 'right' and not 'wright'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sunny21parikh le ven 23/09/2016 - 14:57

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Which one z right?? They had often heard about the ship they have to travel on. Or They had often heard of the ship they have to travel on.

Hello Sunny21parikh,

Both sentences are possible. Which is correct depends on the meaning that the speaker has in mind.

We use 'hear about' when we have heard information about something.

We use 'hear of' when the name of something has been mentioned.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

But sir one has to be more apprpriate than other as often is used but I can't differentiate. And why Have to travel on and not had to travel on.

Soumis par nadisha le mar 30/08/2016 - 12:59

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Dear sir, could you please tell me, how can I ask a question from someone whether he or she saw my friend. I mean, I can't find my friend (she) now. so can I ask, "I can't find her, did you see her?" or "I can't find her' have you seen her?" Thank you!

Hello nadisha,

The best way to say this is:

Have you seen her?

You are asking about a present result because you want to find her, so the present perfect is appropriate.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par MegEnglish le lun 29/08/2016 - 21:13

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I have a quick question! What about a situation that was true in the past but is no longer true? Example: Sara was angry. I saw her on Tuesday. She is not angry today. --> I saw Sara on Tuesday and she said she was angry Things I can't seem to clarify.. -Does this sentence mean that Sara was angry BEFORE Tuesday? -Does this sentence mean that Sara was angry ON Tuesday? -Can I say, "I saw Sara on Tuesday and she said I am angry. THANKS!!

Hello MegEnglish,

The problem here is that the sentence has no context and so the meaning can only be guessed. Both the first and second interpretations are possible; which is intended will depend upon the context.

You would need to add punctuation to the sentence for it to be correct:

I saw Sara on Tuesday and she said "I am angry".

In other words, this is possible only as direct speech.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Peter! How about this: The actress appeared on a talk show last year and talked about her upcoming wedding and confessed that her party planner had a very difficult job. = At that time, her party planner had a hard job. Is this correct? Thanks!!

Hello MegEnglish,

Yes, that is correct - well done!

 

When you say 'had a hard job' it means that the job was hard at the time of speaking. What the actress actually said was 'she has a hard job', and it becomes 'had a hard job' when reported.

 

If you said 'she had had a hard job' then it would mean that the job was finished before the interview took place.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par nadisha le sam 13/08/2016 - 19:13

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Hi, everyone I think, this is the best site for learn English. I was looking for a way to improve my English knowledge. Finally, I think I found the right place. Thank you !

Soumis par Cherie Chung le dim 31/07/2016 - 12:00

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Hello, I am confused about what is the difference between : She was shot. and She had been shot. Both are in the past action. Please explain it to me. thank you

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 01/08/2016 - 06:57

En réponse à par Cherie Chung

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Hello Cherie Chung,

The first sentence is an example of the past simple, describing a completed event in the past. The second sentence is an example of the past perfect, also describing a completed event in the past, but which has a time reference in the past - in other words, the event happened at some time before another time in the past. Sometimes this is in the sentence itself:

She had been shot before I got there.

[the second time reference is 'I got there' and the past perfect action 'had been shot' happened before this]

Sometimes the time reference is implicit or is in another sentence (i.e. it is in the context of the sentence).

You can read more about the past simple here and the past perfect here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par pickygirl le ven 17/06/2016 - 12:53

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Hello! I want to ask something about grammar. Can I say I have been worked in maintenance department in the past? or I had worked in maintenance department? Which one is correct? If both are wrong, I would like to know the correct answer. Thank you.

Soumis par Kirk le ven 17/06/2016 - 13:47

En réponse à par pickygirl

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Hello pickygirl,

If you're describing your work history, the simple past ('I worked in the maintenance department') is the form that works in most situations. The past perfect ('had worked') is also possible, but only when talking about another past time, e.g. 'I had worked in the maintenance department, so I knew a lot about the machines.'

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par blink-182 le lun 06/06/2016 - 14:35

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Hello! Could we use these structures in future in the past form? e.g. 1. We hoped we should have done our homework by midday. 2. He told us he would have been working on the plant for 30 years next December. 3. He was planning how he would be sipping cocktail on his vacation. Thanks in advance!

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 07/06/2016 - 06:42

En réponse à par blink-182

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Hello blink-182,

It's very hard to give an answer to some of these without knowing the full context. Sentence 2, for example, is theoretically possible but highly unlikely - it would require a very specific context in which the speaker no longer works at the plant and is imagining that if he did still work there then at a point in the future, while still an employee, he would have been working there for 30 years. That is why we tend not to answer questions like this which ask if a certain use of a form is theoretically possible.

The first sentence is not correct. We would use 'would' here, not 'should'. 'Should' refers to how the speaker sees a particular state or activity and this is up to the speaker; there is no 'hope' involved in 'should'. 'Would', on the other hand, refers to a fact rather than a perspective, and so can be used with 'hope'.

The third sentence is possible and would be used in a narrative context to describe future plans/ambitions.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par innocentashish420 le jeu 19/05/2016 - 05:18

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"The minister defended his government decision saying the government will always act if there was any violation of environment laws in the state?" Is this sentence correct? Dont you think would should come instead of will?

Hello innocentashish420,

The sentence can be written with either 'would' or 'will'. 'Would' may be more likely, but we can use 'will' to emphasise that what the minister says is still true now.

I would suggest 'his government's decision' (with the apostrophe) would be better.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sunrisereem le jeu 05/05/2016 - 13:25

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Hello, Sir This example: Every one was excited. The party would be fun that means he predicates the party was fun and I read this example too when you started learning english you knew you would be fluent one day. That means he studied or not. Thank you, Sir

Hello sunrisereham,

In the sentence 'When you started learning English you know you would be fluent one day', it does imply that the person studied English. I'm afraid I'm not sure I understand what the rest of your question is.

By the way, when you ask questions about a sentence, could you please put the sentences inside inverted commas (' ')? That way it's clear what the sentence is.

Thanks.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jameseddieking le mer 04/05/2016 - 16:30

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I have a question and need som help! Which sentence is correct? 1. You will receive a confirmation once your reservation has been confirmed. 2. You will receive a confirmation once your reservation is confirmed.

Hello James,

Both sentences are correct and there is little difference in meaning. In the first, the second verb is the passive voice whereas in the second the verb is 'be' and 'confirmed' is an adjective.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par elgahawy le mar 26/04/2016 - 17:07

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Dear Sir, I would like to ask , which of those sentences is right? 1. I have worked for this company since i left university. 2. I have worked for this company after i left university. And what is the difference between the usage of "Since" & "After" ? Thanks in advance