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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Hello elgahawy,

My first suggestion would be for you to look up both words in the dictionary – there you can see not only definitions but also example sentences. Sentence 1 is correct but sentence 2 is odd – this is because 'after I left' refers to a past point in time, and so 'I worked' (past simple) is the logical tense and 'I have worked' (present perfect) is not, as it refers to a time still connected to the present.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par nepalap le dim 13/03/2016 - 07:21

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Hello, how to tell sth that happened in past and we now it now? For eg, someone stole my pen yesterday and i knew it right now.

Soumis par Peter M. le dim 13/03/2016 - 13:35

En réponse à par nepalap

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Hello nepalap,

I think we would usually use the present perfect for such a situation:

Oh no, someone has stolen my pen!

If the result (now) is important and we don't say exactly when it was then we use the present perfect. On the other hand, if we say when the incident happened then we use the past simple:

Someone stole my pen yesterday!

You can find pages on these topics in this (grammar) section.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again chris kim,

Please note that you can search LearnEnglish by using the search facility at the top of every page – just press the small magnifying glass. If you search for 'stative verbs', you'll see we have a page on them.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par chiarencher le dim 28/02/2016 - 06:05

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Hi British Council advisors, I've got this question in my book. "The cupboard is empty because Diana ___ everything from it." 1. took 2. had taken 3. takes 4. has taken The answer given was 4. Why is it not 1 and not 2 too? Thank you.

Hello chiarencher,

Answer 2 is not correct here – see our past perfect page to learn about this form – but answers 1, 3 and 4 are all possible. Verb forms can be used in many different ways, so knowing the context is key when selecting them. 

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par manuel24 le mar 19/01/2016 - 11:52

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why is there not the present ferfect in the sentence "They find it difficult to forget; they _suffered_____ tremendous hardship in the war"?

Hello manuel24,

It is hard to say for sure without knowing the context, but we would generally use the present perfect if the war was still not finished, and past simple if the war was over. The present perfect is used for unfinished past, while the past simple is used for completed time.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you peter,you have clarified that doubt but therefore I ask me what means "I have seen that film several time"? if the present perfect is used for unfinished past as you said..

Hello manuel24,

The unfinished time period here is 'in my life up to now'. If we make it a finished time period ('last year', 'between 2010 and 2012' etc.) then we would use the past simple rather than the present perfect.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par manuel24 le mar 19/01/2016 - 11:43

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hello, the dialogue "why are there tools in my desk? because tim has been repairing the photocopier" means that tim is still repairing?

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 19/01/2016 - 18:32

En réponse à par manuel24

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Hello manuel24,

If the sentence was '...Tim has repaired the photocopier' then we would know that the job is finished. As it is, however, it is not clear whether or not this is the case, and the job may well not be complete yet.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par MayelaM le jeu 17/12/2015 - 21:06

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In the sentence below, why simple past is used? I already told Mark that when he arrived, we would go out for dinner can I also say: I already told Mark that when he arrives, we would go out for dinner To use the simple present form of the verb "arrive" instead of its simple past. Thanks Mayela

Hello MayelaM,

You can say 'arrives... will go out' or 'arrived... would go out'. The difference is rather like that between the first and second conditionals: likely/possible vs unlikely/hypothetical.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par innocentashish420 le dim 11/10/2015 - 08:02

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1)there is no place for you in this compartment. 2)she is very beautiful but not so intelligent as her sister is. 3)mother teresa asked for a place where she and her group could take care of poor people always. 4)what to speak of english he cannot even speak his native language correctly. Are these sentences correct?

Soumis par Peter M. le dim 18/10/2015 - 17:24

En réponse à par innocentashish420

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Hello innocentashish420,

I'm sorry, but we do not offer a service of checking users' sentences for errors - it is simply not something we have the time to do. We are happy to try to explain points from our pages and provide such explanations as time allows, but checking sentences like this is a job for your own teacher.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par innocentashish420 le mar 06/10/2015 - 18:10

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we have been knowing each other since we were children. Is it correct?

Hello innocentashish420,

No, that's not correct. 'know' is one of a handful of verbs called stative verbs that are not normally used in continuous forms. You can see an explanation of this on the page I linked to.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Lamastry le dim 04/10/2015 - 13:45

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HELLO I have learned that we use a and an before countable nouns, so if we use a this way is it used as an article or it has another meaning which might be hidden to me. "Most evenings he would take the dog for a walk" What is the usage of 'a' in this sentence

Hi Lamastry,

f you look up 'walk' in the dictionary, you'll see that it can be used as a count noun, and that is how it is used in this sentence. 'go for a walk' is a very common expression.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Lamastry le dim 04/10/2015 - 11:56

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Hello! may I know if this sentence is correct. "I will be lying if I said I have read the whole book" is it possible or it should be like this "I would be lying if I said I have read the whole book"

Hello Lamastry,

You can say 'I will be lying if I say that..' or 'I would be lying if I said that...'

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par innocentashish420 le lun 17/08/2015 - 20:12

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Can modal verb would be used for present time reference and future time reference(not asking for future in past).Please elaborate with examples context-wise. please analyse these sentences grammatically and 'making sense' point of view. 1)when a child is marked absent, his parents would immediately be sent an SMS.(can 'will' be used instead of would, what would be difference in meaning?) 2)if your parents do not report to me by 11am you would be debarred from attending further classes. 3)the PM would visit this place tommorrow.

Hello innocentashish420,

Modal verbs usually have a present or future time reference, unless they are perfect modals. For example:

You should see a doctor. [the advice is about now and the future]

You should have seen a doctor. [a perfect modal with a past time reference]

As far as the second part of the question goes, I'm afraid we can't provide detailed explanations of lists of sentences. There are many users on LearnEnglish and it is simply not possible for us to provide what amounts to an individual lesson like this.

Please take a look at the pages on conditional and hypothetical forms and I think they will help you to analyse these sentences yourself:

verbs in time clauses and if clauses

wishes and hypotheses

will and would

conditionals 1

conditionals 2

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Soumis par innocentashish420 le lun 17/08/2015 - 19:55

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only if you have been in the deepest valleys, you would know how magnificent it feels to be o the highest mountain. only if you were in the deepest valleys, you would know how magnificent it feels to be o the highest mountain. plzz explain the difference in meaning.

Hello innocentashish420,

Neither sentence is correct as the second part of the sentence requires inversion.

The first sentence also needs a difference verb form:

Only if you have been in the deepest valleys, will/can you know how magnificent it feels to be on the highest mountain.

Only if you were in the deepest valleys, would/could you know how magnificent it feels to be on the highest mountain.

Both are very similar in this particular context. The first example carries a suggestion that the listener may well go to the deepest valleys and experience the feeling - it is a real possibility. The second example is more purely hypothetical, without any suggestion that the trip to the valley could ever take place.

Please take a look at the links I provided in answer to your other question as several of them are relevant here also.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Deblina06 le mer 12/08/2015 - 18:55

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Hello Kirk I came across the following sets of questions and answers: 1. Why are you late today? Ans: I'm late because I was stuck in traffic. 2. Why were you late yesterday? Ans: I was late because I had been stuck in traffic. 3. Why didn't you have breakfast? I didn't have breakfast because I had gone out with my friends. Or, I didn't have breakfast because I went out with my friends. My question is, what form of the past tense do we use when giving the reason for past actions? Isn't a question and its answer supposed to be in the same tense? Thanks

Hello Deblina06,

It's not essential to use the past perfect in these contexts. We can use the past simple to show events which happen in a sequence (one after the other) or the past perfect if we wish to emphasise the connection between them in both sentences 2 and 3.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

When we talk about two past actions we use the past perfect for the first action and the simple past for the second action: I had returned home before she came. If there is any such rule, is it correct to say I was late because: a. I was stuck in traffic b. I had been stuck in traffic c. I had been shopping for sometime and lost track of time. Can I consider "I was late" as the second action and the reason as the first? Sorry for such a long post, but I find it quite complicated as a non-native speaker. Thanks

Hello Deblina06,

Your initial 'rule' is not accurate, I'm afraid. When we talk about two actions in the past we normally use the past simple for each action:

I got up. Then I got had a shower. After that I got dressed and then I had a cup of coffee.

These are all sequential actions, each after the last, and we use past simple for them all.

We use the past perfect for the earlier action not because of time but because of the relationship between the two actions. For more information on this, see this page.

All three of your alternatives are possible, depending on the context and the speaker's intention. For example, to compare the two similar alternatives:

I was late because:
a. I was stuck in traffic [here the speaker is probably in the car and realises that they are late already]
b. I had been stuck in traffic [here the speaker is no longer in the car and has arrived late]

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sss_ le jeu 11/06/2015 - 22:55

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Hello! What is the difference between past continuous and past perfect continuous ? I'm little bit confused. Thanks in advance.

Soumis par Kirk le ven 12/06/2015 - 08:10

En réponse à par Sss_

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Hi Sss_,

You can find explanations of these on our past continuous and past perfect pages. If you have any questions after reading them, please don't hesitate to ask us on one of those pages.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Primegirl25 le mar 09/06/2015 - 06:07

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Dear The LearnEnglish Team! There is the first line in the Queen song Radio Gaga - I'd sit alone and watch your light, My only friend through teenage nights, And everything I had to know I heard it on my radio, Radio. So, is it "I had sit alone" or "I would sit alone?" And why not "sat alone" if it is describing the past? Thanks in advance! Elena.

Hello Primegirl,

It's 'I would sit alone'. They could have used the past simple here as well, but 'would' adds a bit more meaning: 'would' can be used to talk about something that we did often in the past because we wanted to do it – see our will or would page for more on this.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Francois Fiset le ven 22/05/2015 - 18:06

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Thank you very much Peter for this useful clarification! François

Soumis par Francois Fiset le jeu 14/05/2015 - 17:15

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Hello Kirk! I have a question I looked up in a number of grammars, but I can't seem to find a straight answer. My question is about reported speech. The grammar says that in English, the tense must not change if the reported situation remains unchanged at the moment you're speaking. If someone tells me:"I'll come tomorrow.", how should I report this sentence to someone else, ten minutes later? Shouldn't we say: "He said he will come tomorrow"? and not "He said he would come tomorrow?" since ten minutes later, the other person's action is still in the future? I hope my question is clear enough. Thank you in advance for your help.

Hello Francois,

In reported speech we can change the tense backwards irrespective of whether the situation has changed or not. If the situation has changed then we can choose not to change the tense, and in this case we provide extra information. For example:

She said she loved me. [This does not tell us if she still loves me or not - perhaps she does, perhaps she does not]

She said she loves me. [This gives us extra information - not only did she love me when she said it, but she still loves me now]

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Memuna Salifu Ussif le lun 11/05/2015 - 22:46

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Hello Kirk, when do we use being and been in both written and spoken language. Thank you. Muna

Hello Memuna Salifu Ussif,

'Being' is the present participle form and 'been' is the past participle form of the verb 'be'. They are used in many different ways. Perhaps you have an example sentence or two with these forms which you would like us to explain. If so, please post it and we'll be happy to comment.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par afif saleh le mar 07/04/2015 - 19:27

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I'm having difficulties in changing this sentence into past form. "I feel I will miss them when they are gone." is it grammatically right to change it into "I felt I would miss them when they were gone."? I'm changing it to include it in a narrative text which use past tense. I get the impression when it changed into a past tense, the person's feeling of missing them only occurred in the past and won't occurred again in the present or future. But in the first sentence, it happens in present (and maybe the future). I wanna know, is there a way to preserve that nuance? Thanks in advance

Hello afif,

Your transformation is perfect - it is grammatically correct and sounds perfectly natural. It's true that the new sentence refers only to the past, and not to the present or future. To preserve that nuance, I'd say something like 'I felt I would miss them when they were gone, and still do' or 'and expect I always will', though there's probably a more elegant way to say that.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par NataliaAlvim le lun 23/02/2015 - 23:37

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I have some difficulties in understanding present perfect tense. From theses examples what are the correct ones and why? "This weekend was great because I've been with my friends" (sounds more natural to me) X "This weekend was great because I was with my friends". "This weekend was great because I was with my friends at a party" (sounds more natural) X "This weekend was great because I've been with friends at a part". Thanks in advance.

Hello NataliaAlvim,

The present perfect and past simple are used differently in English compared to many European languages. I don't know Portuguese, but if it's like Spanish, French or Catalan, then there are many times when the present perfect might 'sound' natural due to its being similar to your native language, but when it is actually incorrect in English. Reading our present perfect page carefully might help you see this.

'This weekend was great because I've been with my friends' is a bit confusing because 'was' implies the weekend is finished, but 'have been' implies that it is not. If it's Sunday evening, 'This weekend has been great because I've been ...' would make sense, but if it's Monday or later, you should use the past simple for both verbs ('was' and 'was').

I hope this helps!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par arkadsq le mer 28/01/2015 - 17:20

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when we are talking about something happening before and after another action in the past: He broke his leg when he was playing rugby. so what, he broke his leg and still was playing? shouldn't it be "He had been playing rugby and suddenly he broke his leg"? or it should have some clearer explanation for people with less knowledge about this tense, like "when we are talking about something happening before and after another action in the past /or something that was happening and was interrupted by another action"? i know that this is explained in another section, but still.

Hello arkadsq,

Perhaps it would help to think of the action in the past continuous ('was playing rugby') as one that was in process at the time the other action happened ('he broke his leg'). Sometimes the action in process (in the past continuous) continues (such as in the example with Jim driving away) afterwards, and sometimes it does not - which one is meant is inferred from the context. In the case of playing rugby, I think it's safe to assume that most people would understand that this man would stop playing after breaking his leg.

You could say what you suggest, though it suggests to me that perhaps his leg was broken as the result of some incident unrelated to rugby, i.e. that is happened during a pause in the match.

We are in the process of revising the English Grammar section and I'll make a note of your suggestion for the new version.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par innocentashish420 le jeu 11/12/2014 - 18:04

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Sir please tell me 1) is this sentence grammatically correct?"the milk vendor studied hard before topped the national level exam." 2)when modal verb would is used with simple present? Give all possible usage. 3)for politeness in present," I hoped you would be able to help me" and "I hope you would be able to help me ".What is difference between two? Give more examples to clarify politeness.(assertive sentences.) I would be grateful if u reply soon.

Hello innocentashish420,

1) We would follow the word 'after' with a gerund form, so the correct sentence would be 'The milk vendor studied hard before topping the national level exam.'

2) I'm afraid I don't understand your question. Modal verbs can be followed by infinitives without 'to' or by perfect forms (have + past participle); they cannot be followed by simple present forms. You can find information on modal verbs on our modal verbs pages (use the links to learn about particular modals and their uses).

3) As the page says, we can sometimes use past forms to indicate politeness, depending on the context. The context is crucial as politeness is dependent on the interaction between the two individuals; therefore, it is often hard to explain why one decontextualised sentence is or is not polite. You need to see the examples in context, and you can find such examples on the pages related to modals (above), particularly with regard to 'could' and 'would', for example. You can also find examples and more information by using the search facility - like these, for example.

I hope those links are helpful to you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team