Past tense

Level: intermediate

Past tense

There are two tenses in English – past and present.

The past tense in English is used:

  • to talk about the past
  • to talk about hypotheses (when we imagine something)
  • for politeness.

There are four past tense forms in English:

Past simple: I worked
Past continuous: I was working
Past perfect: I had worked
Past perfect continuous: I had been working

We use these forms:

  • to talk about the past:

He worked at McDonald's. He had worked there since July.
He was working at McDonald's. He had been working there since July.

  • to refer to the present or future in hypotheses:

It might be dangerous. Suppose they got lost.

This use is very common in wishes:

I wish it wasn't so cold.

and in conditions with if:

He could get a new job if he really tried.
If Jack was playing, they would probably win.

For hypotheses, wishes and conditions in the past, we use the past perfect:

It was very dangerous. What if you had got lost?
I wish I hadn't spent so much money last month.
I would have helped him if he had asked.

and also to talk about the present in a few polite expressions:

Excuse me, I was wondering if this was the train for York.
I just hoped you would be able to help me.

Past tense 1

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Past tense 2

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Submitted by Satinder on Thu, 07/05/2020 - 14:07

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I wanna ask that Which is correct I want to buy the house which we had seen yesterday Or I want to buy the house which we have seen yesterday

Hello Santinder,

As presented and without any other context, neither sentence is correct. The present perfect (have seen) is not used in a finished time context (yesterday). The past perfect (had seen) is only used when there is a second past reference, not a present time reference (want).

 

The most natural way to form this sentence is with a past simple verb:

I want to buy the house which we saw yesterday.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Marmar234 on Sun, 08/03/2020 - 23:28

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I have question If I have visited place and I am describing it should I refer to present simple or past simple and also the people if I am talking about my someone at past but i wanna say they are kind for ex should I use present simple or past simple Thanks in advance

Hello Marmar234

You can choose whether to speak about it in the present or in the past. In general, if you want to focus on your visit and your experience there, the past is probably a better choice. If you want to focus on the place, then the present might make more sense. The same is true for speaking about people.

You might find the Talking about the past page useful.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Baruwanku on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 14:38

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It is actually an introduction. Now I know why it is so. Thank you so much, I highly appreciate.

Submitted by mehransam05 on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 12:09

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Hi there, Fight to enemy or fight enemy? Which one is correct and why? Thanks in advance

Hello mehransam05

'to' is not used before the object of the verb 'fight' -- we just say 'fight the enemy' here.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Baruwanku on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 09:44

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Please it not clear to me why I should use "is" and past tense in the following context (where chapter x has already been written): In chapter x concept y "is presented". I was expecting: In chapter x concept y "was presented".

Hello Baruwanku

I can't say for sure without knowing the context, but, for example, if this is the introduction to a book, since it is explaining the contents of the book, which still exists, the present tense makes sense. If you were explaining an event that happened in the past, then the past tense would be better.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Anubhav on Sun, 08/12/2019 - 11:05

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Help with the tenses please- "Back in college, i came to know she had a boyfriend who she had been dating for a while" - is this sentence correct considering the could is still dating?

Hello Anubhav

That is grammatically correct. It indicates that she had the boyfriend in the past (when you were in college), but it doesn't say anything about the moment of speaking.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Sat, 07/12/2019 - 06:02

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Hi Peter & Kirk, I always get confused using the verb think in past form. Ex- I thought Alisha was still with me that morning. I was thinking Alisha was still with me that morning. Could you please explain me the meaning of these two sentences and when to use "thought" and "was thinking" in a sentence with example.

Hi jitu_jaga,

When we express a point of view or an opinion we use the simple form, whether in the present or past:

I think this is a great film!

I thought he was very nice last night.

 

When we want to use 'think' to mean 'consider' then we can use the continuous form:

I'm thinking about buying a new car.

She was thinking of changing her job, but in the end she decided to stay where she was.

 

Occasionally, you can find examples of the continous form used to emphasise an opinion which changed, but this is quite unusual:

I was thinking it was a good film until I saw the ending.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sumanasc on Fri, 22/11/2019 - 12:54

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He smelt strongly of rum. Is smelt a verb in this sentence. Thank you

Submitted by sumanasc on Fri, 22/11/2019 - 12:45

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Sir I need to know the verbs in the following sentences. I think they are, smelt, filled, squawking and circling. please let me know whether I am correct. The air smelt of wood smoke and my ears were filled with the sound of squawking birds circling above. Thank you

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 23/11/2019 - 09:27

In reply to by sumanasc

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Hello sumansc,

Those verbs seem fine to me.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rosario70 on Wed, 02/10/2019 - 16:14

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Hi teachers, i noticed this entence : sorry to keep you waiting . If i was gonna use it in the past could i rewrite that in the following way: i was sorry to keep you waiting or i am supposed to write that like this : i am sorry to have kept you waiting . Thanks in advance, i hope you will be fine.

Hello rosario70

Both are possible, but are slightly different in meaning. The first one means that you felt sorry in the past -- you could also say 'I was sorry to have kept you waiting' but there's not much difference between it and your first suggestion -- and the second one means that you feel sorry now.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 09/08/2019 - 19:01

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Hello. Could you help me, please? 1- When I was in Sharm El-Sheikh, I sunbathed a lot. If I used "would sunbathe" instead of "sunbathed", would that change the meaning? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam

It would essentially mean the same thing, since you use 'a lot' in the first version. Though 'would' would imply it was a habit, whereas the simple past is not as specific -- it could be just what happened, rather than being a habit, for example.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Shaban Nafea on Fri, 09/08/2019 - 14:19

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Can I say: I wish I hadn't gone shopping with you. I spent too much money. Or I wish I hadn't gone shopping with you. I have spent too much money. Are they both correct?

Hello Shaban Nafea

The first one is correct. The first sentence clearly speaks about a finished past event, and so the past simple is the tense you should use to refer to it, not the present perfect.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 26/07/2019 - 14:27

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Hello. What is the difference in meaning between the two following sentences : 1- When I opened the window, a cat jumped out. 2- When I had opened the window, a cat jumped out. Some colleagues say that the past perfect is wrong here. What would you say? Thank you.

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 28/07/2019 - 01:14

In reply to by Ahmed Imam

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Hello Ahmed Imam

Yes, 2 is strange or even incorrect because 'when' is speaking about a specific moment in time and the past simple is the best form to speak of such a moment in time. 

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ahlinthit on Sun, 23/06/2019 - 04:44

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I post this question here because I cannot find a comment box in reported speech section.I want to know how to change the below speech . Direct speech: "He had to go to school."

Hello ahlinthit

The simplest way to say it is something like 'They said that he had to go to school'. You should of course change 'they' to the person who is reporting the speech.

Thanks for telling us that the comment box didn't work for you. If you were on Reported speech 1 or 2, that's because we are currently revising those pages. Once they're finished, you will be able to comment there. In any case, on this reported speech page you can ask any other questions you have.

Thanks and best wishes

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Mon, 08/04/2019 - 19:38

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Hi, My question is about the verb wed. Should wedding be in past form like I wrote in the following sentence? Wedding ceremony everywhere, Oh Lord, bless all the newly WEDDED couples. For we that aren’t, direct us to the virtuous ones.
Hello sirmee, The past form is usually 'wed' and the past participle is either 'wed' or 'wedded': wed > wed > wed/wedded In your sentence, the past participle 'wedded' is functioning as an adjective describing the noun 'couples'. It is correct. Peter The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Thu, 28/02/2019 - 13:48

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Hi Sir, please is the following sentences correct Some people wanted to update status at the expense of their lives This is the first time seeing a girl doing stunts. Thank you

Hello sirmee

Without knowing what you are trying to say, I can't say for sure, but I would recommend saying 'update their status' in the first sentence. I understand the second sentence, but it is not correct in standard English: say 'This is the first time I've seen ...' instead.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Sat, 23/02/2019 - 06:08

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Hello Sir, please is this sentence correct. “He has changed my perspective towards cops.” I used to have negative thinking about cops, but now I realize not all of them are bad. Can I use “has changed” in the sentence above? Thank you.

Hello sirmee,

Yes, that sentence is fine. The present perfect can express a change in the past which is still true at the moment of speaking.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sirmee on Sun, 17/02/2019 - 08:39

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Sir, please is the following sentence correct? Suddenly, he DIED yesterday in his room. My question is should I use dies or died? Thanks

Hello sirmee

'died' is the correct form to refer to yesterday. I would recommend 'Yesterday he died suddenly in his room' instead, since 'yesterday' first tells us about the general time and then 'suddenly' is more clearly related to the action of dying.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Widescreen on Wed, 16/01/2019 - 15:31

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Hello, Could you please clarify which tense I could use in this sentence please as I am confused as to which tense best suits to talk about a past event like this which leaves the result in the present: "No one knows exactly how the planets come/ came/ have come/ had come into being" thank you.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 17/01/2019 - 06:19

In reply to by Widescreen

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Hello Widescreen,

The most appropriate verb form here is the past simple:

No-one knows how the planets came into being.

 

We don't consider the existence of the planets to be a present result here. Unless the consequence is an identifiable particular change in the present (something new), we do not tend to use the present perfect in contexts like this.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amit_ck on Mon, 07/01/2019 - 17:53

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Could you please tell me what’s wrong my sentence? sir I need your help. thank you. “Two weeks ago I tested my level on Learnenglish.britishcouncil.org. The result was shown that my level is Intermediate. “

Hello amit_ck,

The problem is in the second sentence. You need an active verb, not a passive form:

'...the result showed that my level is intermediate.'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 28/12/2018 - 06:44

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Could you please help us? I told him that we ……….. any more people today. a) hadn’t interviewed b) aren’t interviewing Is "today" an indicator to choose "b"? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both forms are possible here. 'Hadn't interviewed' would tell us about the time before you told him; 'aren't interviewing' would tell us about your plans later today.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Andrew.int on Tue, 25/12/2018 - 08:34

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Hello Sir Which sentence is correct first or the second? Please let me know. If my grandfather had lived up to ninety years he would be a very old man. If my grandfather had lived up to ninety years he would have been a very old man. I think the first one is correct because it is a fact. Please let me know. Thank you. Regards Lal

Hi Lal,

Both can be correct -- it depends on the context. If, for example, today were his birthday, the first one would express the idea that today he would be a very old man. The second sentence would be better for speaking about the past, however, because the conditional perfect ('would have been') makes it clear you are speaking about a hypothetical past situation. This would make more sense if, for example, his birthday were earlier this month.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Andrew.int on Tue, 25/12/2018 - 07:10

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Hello Sir Please help me to clarify this. When using past tense one can use only past tense unlike present tense one can use present , past and future I am I correct?Now I would like to know whether this sentence right or wrong. e.g. Yesterday I met your boss and he told me that you are doing all right. Is this sentence correct? This sentence is a combination of present and past but whole thing is something happened in the past. Please let me this sentence right or wrong. Thank you.. Regards Lal

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 27/12/2018 - 08:20

In reply to by Andrew.int

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Hello Lal,

I'm afraid I have no idea what this means:

When using past tense one can use only past tense unlike present tense one can use present , past and future I am I correct?

Verb forms are used to express ideas in logical ways. I don't know what rule you have in mind here.

 

The sentence

I met your boss and he told me that you are doing all right.

is fine. The meeting took place in the past; the telling took place in the past; the doing all right is something that is still true at the time of speaking.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amit_ck on Tue, 11/12/2018 - 10:33

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“I was wondering if I might take Danny into town?” Sir, in this sentence why used 'was' in spite of being it present tense? I think this is very formal way to ask someone but how can I ask it informal way? [If the way of my asking question is not right please correction it]

Hi amit_ck,

We often use the past tense to speak about the present when making requests. This makes the request less direct and therefore more polite. It is used especially in formal contexts, but is also sometimes used in more informal situations. There is a lengthier explanation of this in the Changing tenses and verb forms of this page on politeness if you'd like to learn more.

A more informal version would be something like 'Can you take Danny into town?'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team