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 MayelaM le jeu 20/11/2014 - 18:03

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I have a questions about the following phrase: I would need the initial letter by which this response you had been produced is the above phrase equal to say I would need the initial letter by which this response had been produced to you. Can the "you" in the subordinate phrase be replaced by "to you" at the end and keep the meaning of the phrase? If it does, where is the grammatical rule that explain this. Is the first phrase more formal than the second? Thanks!

Hi Mayela,

I'm afraid that the first sentence that you quote doesn't make sense to me. In the phrase 'by which this response you had been produced', there are two subjects ('this response' and 'you') of the verb 'had been produced', and these two subjects are irreconcilable, i.e. they can't go together. Saying 'to you' changes the grammar a bit, but the sentence still doesn't make sense to me.

I'm sorry!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Thereal le sam 08/11/2014 - 14:52

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Everybody worked hard through the winter. Everybody work hard during the winter. What's the difference between these sentences?

Hello Thereal,

The first sentence has a past simple form ('worked') and is about a past time. The second sentence has an imperative form ('work) and is a command or an order referring to the present or to future time.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par CarmenPC le lun 27/10/2014 - 11:44

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I would like to know what is the difference between 'rained' and 'was raining'. For example: Last weekend I stayed at home because it rained. Last weekend I stayed at home because it was raining. Are both forms correct? Thanks

Hello CarmenPC,

Both 'it rained' (past simple tense) and 'it was raining' are possible in this sentence, although they have different meanings. Which one would be used depends on the context. In these sentences, 'it was raining' takes us more into the moment when the speaker decided to stay home (in Spanish, 'llovía'), whereas 'it rained' presents a more finished perspective on that time (in Spanish, 'llovió').

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Eng.Learner le lun 27/10/2014 - 09:52

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Hello Team, I've got a problem with question 8. It is 'They find it difficult to forget; they ______ tremendous hardship in the war.' I thought the most appropriate answer could be 'had suffered' because their suffering is actually the cause for their inability to forget. But the answer is 'suffered'. Could you please explain it? Thanks in advance, Eng.Learner

Hello Eng.Learner,

In this sentence, the reference point is the present (in 'they find it difficult...', the verb 'find' is in the present), and so the past simple is the correct form. If the sentence said 'The found it difficult' (i.e. with a past reference point), then the past perfect would be the correct form for the answer.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Oscas Po le lun 06/10/2014 - 09:14

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Hi! everyone inr the example above of using past tense for "When we are talking about something that happened several times in the past we use" in this example 1. Most evenings we stayed at home and watched DVDs and 2. Most evenings we used to stay at home and watch DVDs I'm just curious why "ed" added in the word watch from example one and in example two not? thanks

Hi Oscas Po,

The form 'used' here, referring to habitual actions or states in the past, is followed by an infinitive, not a past form:

I used to be a mechanic.

We used to visit her every weekend.

In your example 'stay' is an infinitive, not a past form.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par tagrapankaj le jeu 21/08/2014 - 14:09

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you were always like you have to put in all the efforts to make it happen at its best and u did it. Is there any grammatical mistake?

Soumis par tagrapankaj le jeu 14/08/2014 - 05:34

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Sometimes people says i dont understand wat u said and sometimes they say i didnt understand wat u said?' Could u plz explain me why it is so? How the both are correct at the same time.
Hello, Take a look at this page: http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/verbs/past-tense You will see that there are many reasons to choose between a present and past form. It could be a time reference or it could be politeness. Best wishes, Adam The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par chfurlan le lun 11/08/2014 - 20:56

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About the "Future in the past", can the next two forms be used with the same meaning? It was September. Mary was starting school the next week. It was September. Mary was going to start school the next week. Thanks!
Hello, Both of those forms have the same time reference, but there are slight differences, in the same way that 'Mary is starting school next week' and 'Mary is going to start school next week' are not exactly the same, although they refer to the same action at the same time. You can find more information about the differences here: http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/verbs/talking-about-future Best wishes, Adam The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par chfurlan le mar 12/08/2014 - 05:28

En réponse à par AdamJK

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Thanks for answer my question so quickly, AdamJK. I haven't studied that lesson yet, but i will as soon as possible. Thanks again and congratulations for your job with all your colleagues from The LearnEnglish Team. You all are very good and help many people around the world every day. Carlos.

Soumis par tagrapankaj le lun 04/08/2014 - 13:06

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They could have helped me instead of just sitting there. Can i also say this. Would it be correct? They could help me instead of just sitting there.

Hello tagrapankaj,

'Could have' has a past meaning: they could have (then, yesterday, two years ago), but that time is now past.

'Could' here has a present meaning, showing that something is possible for them.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par tagrapankaj le jeu 31/07/2014 - 14:37

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3 chances are left. 3 chances are remaining. Could u plz tell me difference between them. which 1 should be used when if both have same meaning context wise. I remain confuse in these sort of sentences.

Hello tagrapankaj,

There is no difference in meaning between the expression with 'left' and that with 'remaining', though there is a slight difference in use. 'remaining' is more commonly used in more formal contexts, and 'left' is more common after the verbs 'there is/are' and 'have got'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Oscas Po le jeu 31/07/2014 - 14:23

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hi! something confusing me about present perfect, i know that pp based on results but how come this sentence shows that the action still in progress? is it because of the word "since"? -We have lived here since 2007. (and we still live here)

Soumis par Kirk le ven 01/08/2014 - 07:09

En réponse à par Oscas Po

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Hi Oscas Po,

As is explained above, we use the present perfect 'when we are talking about something that started in the past and still goes on'. That is the meaning of the sentence that you quote. since if often used with the present perfect, but by itself does not indicate the same idea, as it can be used with other verb tense that refer only to the past, e.g. 'He had lived there since he was a child'.

I think the idea that the 'pp is based on results' might confuse you more than help you, as it doesn't apply all the time - I'd recommend that you work on learning the different ways verb forms can be used to express different meanings.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par tagrapankaj le jeu 31/07/2014 - 09:11

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i came here to but raincoat but i did't get it. so now i m just roaming around the mall. my doubt is whether i should use didn't OR don't in the above sentence?
Hello, What time are you talking about? That's right - you failed to buy the raincoat in the past, so you should use 'don't' here. Best wishes, Adam The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par tagrapankaj le sam 26/07/2014 - 09:47

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sometimes i get confuse between whether to user simple past or simple present e.g suppose i go with my friend in the market and i like the watch there in that shop and i force my friend to buy that watch.. so what should i say.. I like this watch.. or i liked this watch plz help me out.. i always remain confuse in between them.

Hello tagrapankaj,

You can say either of these sentences.

'I like this watch' tells us that you like it now. Perhaps you liked it before or perhaps not, but you certainly like it now.

'I liked this watch' tells us that you liked it in the past. Perhaps you still like it now or perhaps not, but you certanly liked it then.

Which of the two sentences you use is up to you, and depends upon what you want to say.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par tagrapankaj le ven 25/07/2014 - 16:05

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Call me when u r free Or call me when u will be free Could u plz tell me the difference between them or they have the same meaning?

Hello tagrapankaj,

In time clauses such as these we usually use the present simple, as in the first sentence. It is possible to use 'will' if the sentence is an offer or a promise in order to make the sentence more polite, but not in a sentence like your second example.

You can find more information on time clauses here.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par tagrapankaj le ven 25/07/2014 - 15:16

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Which 1 is correct? I knew you r cheating me. Or I knew you were cheating me

Hello tagrapankaj,

In reported speech we can often use different tenses like this, and here both forms are possible. The first on suggests that the cheating is still the case, the second does not tell us whether it is still the case or has already finished. Another example can help to illustrate.

She told me she loves me. - She loves me now.

She told me she loved me. - She loved me then but the sentence doesn't tell us if she still loves me now or not.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par iphit le ven 18/07/2014 - 08:42

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hi, i am new here i am still confuse, how many are the "tense"?

Hi iphit,

I'm afraid there's no simple answer to this question, because there is some disagreement about what the word 'tense' means. For some, including the writer of this Grammar Reference, there are only two tenses in English, present and past, because one way to define 'tense' includes the idea that a tense can only be a single word (e.g. present simple and past simple).

Many teachers and learners of English, however, refer to 12 tenses, and these include verb forms with more than one word (e.g. present perfect, past continuous, etc.). In the end, the important thing is to understand how the different forms are used to communicate meaning.

I'm not sure this will be very satisfactory answer for you! If you have any more specific questions about this, please don't hesitate to ask.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par PANKJ005 le mar 01/07/2014 - 07:56

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hello peter i'm new to this site and dont know where to start, my english is not so good and don't know anything about grammar, i hope i'll learn a lot of things here, even reading comments is also very helpful. kindly help me with your guidance. thank you

Hello PANKJ005,

There is no set beginning point or sequence of pages to follow here - think of LearnEnglish as a library you can browse in as you wish. In this English Grammar section, which you can easily navigate using the links on the right, you'll find lots of useful explanations with examples and exercises.

Many users like to use one of our audio or video series such as the Elementary Podcasts. These have audio you can listen to, transcripts of the audio that you can read, plus integrated comprehension, vocabulary and grammar exercises.

I'd encourage you to explore the site and then just begin using whatever pages you find most useful or interesting.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par dhananjay81991 le dim 29/06/2014 - 19:15

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Hello team.... I want to ask if this sentence is correct or not. If i had a voice like you, i would have spent the whole night singing and enjoying my own voice. i also want to know sentece structurs for every tense.. Please provide some link... And i sometimes feel like I'm saying the right thing in English but i doubt my own English .... I don't have confidence on my own English .... Is there any way to resolve this problem ... Some kind of test or something which can help to build confidence. And thanks for replying everytime. Even though some of the times i ask very silly questions. Thanks team. Regards

Hello dhananjay81991,

The sentence you ask about is grammatically correct; some people might prefer to say "like yours" ("yours" referring to "your voice"), but your sentence can be understood as "like you (do)" and is correct in that way.

Here in the Verbs section of our English Grammar, you'll find examples of different verb forms on most every page. The hesitation you describe is a natural part of learning a language, and the fact that you are aware of the fact that you have much to learn is a good sign. If you want to improve your confidence with speaking, I'd suggest listening to Big City Small World. Pay attention to the phrases that the characters use in their conversations, and make note of them and practise them as much as you can. Even if you don't speak English very often, you can say the phrases to yourself to help you remember them.

Good luck!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par muntaziri le lun 23/06/2014 - 14:01

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i send an email to my friend and he is regularly mailing me so i sent an email to him stating that"im very thankful to you as you have been regularly updating me with the current job notifications" is this sentence right or wrong.

Hello muntaziri,

I would say '...for regularly updating me with current job notifications'.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par dhananjay81991 le lun 16/06/2014 - 05:50

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Hello team..... Which sentence would be right.... Could you place the pie on the table. Or You could place the pie on the table. Regards

Hello dhananjay8199,

Are you asking a question? If so, the first sentence with a question mark (?) at the end would be correct: "Could you place the pie on the table?"

On the other hand, if you're making a statement, the second sentence you write is correct.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

 

Soumis par dhananjay81991 le mar 27/05/2014 - 09:35

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Hi team.... My question is... Can we use , "happend to" in place of "used to" Example- I happened to watch a lot of movies.

Hello dhananjay81991,

The two forms have different meanings.

We use 'used to' + verb to describe a repeated or habitual action in the past which is no longer true.  If you say 'I used to watch a lot of movies' then the listener will understand that this is something that was common for you or typical of you, but that you do not do it any more.

'Happened to' + verb has two common uses.  The first is to describe something that was unexpected or unplanned.  For example, if you say 'I happened to meet Bob yesterday' then the listener will understand that the meeting was not planned and happened by accident.

The second use of 'happened to' + verb is less common.  The form is sometimes used as a way of emphasising your own experience of something during an argument.  For example:

A: You don't know anything about South America!

B: Really? Well, I just happen to be married to someone from Brazil, so I think I know a little more about it than you!

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Corsair777 le ven 09/05/2014 - 00:06

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Hi, how to use if to ask question about an event happening in the past? For example, lets say Sarah took the kids to school and Brad was not at home at that time. If i were to ask Brad who took the kids to school using "if" (because I thought Brad was the one taking them to school), which one is correct? Brad, if you were not at home, who took the kids to school? Brad, if you had not been at home, who took the kids to school? Brad, if you had not been at home, who could have taken the kids to school? I am getting confused using past tense and past perfect when it involves conditionals if. Thanks in advance

Hi Corsair777,

Brad, if you were not at home, who took the kids to school? - this is correct

Brad, if you had not been at home, who took the kids to school? - this is incorrect; you could use instead 'who would have taken' in the second clause, making the sentence about a hypothetical past (a 'third conditional', if you prefer).

Brad, if you had not been at home, who could have taken the kids to school? - this is correct and is a variation on the 'third conditional' sentence mentioned above.

I think you'll find the information you are looking for on this page and this page.

In English the two clauses of a conditional must agree in terms of whether they describe a real or hypothetical event; the tenses used must be logical in terms of the sequence and time of events.  For example, your first sentence is correct because both clauses are about real events (Brad was not at home and somebody did take the kids to school) and the tenses are appropriate for past finished events.  Your second sentence is not correct because the first clause describes and unreal/hypothetical situation (Brad was at home) but the second uses a form which describes a real situation (it was Brad, not somebody else, who actually took the kids to school), so there is a mismatch.  Your third sentence is correct because both clauses describe hypothetical situations (Brad was at home and somebody else did not take the kids to school).

I hope that clarifies it for you.  Take a look at the pages I linked to for information on different conditional forms, and some exercises to practise them.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Verony le mar 15/04/2014 - 08:58

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Hello, is this sentence correct? "This morning I also felt my right arm was going to fall because it started become heavy"

Hello Verony,

That sentence needs one correction to make it grammatically correct: you need to add 'to' between 'started' and 'become'.  However, I cannot say whether or not the sentence makes sense without knowing the context.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par akhi le ven 07/03/2014 - 15:04

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hello sir, when we talk about the general ability in the past, that time we could use "used to" in sentence.for example 1. he could speak fluent French when he was 5. 2. he used to speak fluent French when he was 5. could we use "used to" for past general ability?

Hello akhi,

We can use 'used to' for general ability in the past, but it must be something which is no longer true:

I used to speak fluent French (but I cannot do so now).

However, remember that 'used to' is not used for individual actions, but for past states or repeated actions.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team