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

MultipleChoice_MTYzMjA=

Past tense 2

GapFillTyping_MTYzMjE=

Take your language skills and your career to the next level
Get unlimited access to our self-study courses for only £5.99/month.

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 06/12/2018 - 17:42

Permalink
Could you please help me? When he (reached - had reached) 80, he died. I think both of them are correct, what do you think? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed,

This really depends on the context in which the sentnece is used. It's possible to think of a context when the past perfect would be used, but I think the past simple is much more likely as the sentence is describing a sequence of events which are not connected in any way.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by EthanF90 on Sun, 04/11/2018 - 10:31

Permalink
Hello, I had some questions on using past tense for politeness. I wanted to send invitation to another party, is it correct or natural if I write "We would send you the invitation later."? The second one is for greeting in email. I often start with "hope you are doing well", but would it be the same if I write "hoped you were doing well"? Thank you for your comment. Ethan

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 04/11/2018 - 15:44

In reply to by EthanF90

Permalink

Hello Ethan,

This use of the past tense for politeness is typically used with specific expressions and verbs for making a request.

'I hope you are doing well' is not a request and so it is actually just fine (and polite) the way it is -- there is no need to use the past tense here. The past tense in the example above ('I just hoped you would be able to help me') is a request for someone to help you, whereas yours is wishing someone well. Does that make sense?

I'm afraid I don't understand your invitation well enough to be able to offer any advice. If you'd like me to help you with that, could you please explain the situation a bit more?

Finally, I just wanted to mention that the Cambridge Dictionary pages on Politeness and Requests have numerous examples that you might find useful.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sat, 07/04/2018 - 19:51

Permalink
Sir, I didn't meet them till a year ago from the time they got married. I mean it was one year ago when I last met them from the time they got married.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 08/04/2018 - 08:29

In reply to by SonuKumar

Permalink

Hello SonuKumar,

I think the best ways to express what you are trying to say would be as follows:

The last time I met then was a year after their marriage.

 

You could construct a sentence with since but it would be rather unnatural and hard to follow, so I don't think we would normally use this:

I haven't met them since their first anniversary.

I haven't met them since a year after their marriage.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sat, 07/04/2018 - 14:26

Permalink
Sir, I didn't meat them till yesterday or a year ago from the time they got married is it a right use of from ? We don't use 'Since' until we're talking about a point in the past to the moment of speaking right ? I don't have to face it as much as you do or you have to. which is right 'you do or you have to' in the sentence above ?

Hi SonuKumar,

Both 'you do' or 'you have to' are fine in that sentence.

Be careful: 'meat' and 'meet' are very different words. I understand 'till yesterday' (and that is correct) but I'm afraid I don't really understand 'a year ago from the time they got married'. Perhaps 'a year after they got married'?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Daniel157 on Fri, 30/03/2018 - 16:39

Permalink
Hello! Could you say, what tense/tenses I should use in these two sentences: 1) He (sit) on the bench for two hours, when he saw a pretty woman; 2) He (sit) on the bench for two hours, and then he saw a pretty woman. Thanks in advance!

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 31/03/2018 - 07:39

In reply to by Daniel157

Permalink

Hello Daniel157,

I'm afraid we don't provide answers for questions like this as we don't want to do users' homework or tests for them. These pages will be helpful to you, I think:

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

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/perfective-aspect

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/quick-grammar/past-perfect

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/continuous-aspect

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Peter, I assure you it's not the case! I just wanted to make sure wheather my professor is right or not. She said in the first sentence I could use Past Perfect Continuous (had been sitting), but in the second – I had to use only Past Simple (sat). Is this right? Is there such a rule? Or I can still use Past Perfect Continuous in the second sentence, since there is "for two hours" which emphasizes the process? Thank you!

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 01/04/2018 - 09:44

In reply to by Daniel157

Permalink

Hello Daniel157,

Context is crucial here. The forms suggested by your teacher are the most likely here and without any context to guide us those are the forms I would choose. The past simple suits the second sentence because the word 'then' indicates a sequence of actions and so we can see the sitting as something unitary and complete, as opposed to an ongoing process. However, it is not impossible to image a context in which other forms would be possible, including perfective and continuous forms. It's very hard to exclude all options in a decontextualised sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mteng06 on Thu, 08/03/2018 - 08:53

Permalink
Hi there, I am writing an article about my recent trip. I first wrote "After three hours ride, we arrived at the resort." Then, I want to describe the lobby and its surroundings. Which one(s) of the followings is(are) proper? 1. The lobby was so beautiful. There are trees around it. And there is pond in front of it. 2. The lobby was so beautiful. There were trees around it. And there was pond in front of it. 3. The lobby is so beautiful. There are trees around it. And there is pond in front of it. Thank you for your comments. regards, MTeng06

Hello MTeng06,

I would encourage you to try to meet with your teacher to get some help with these kinds of questions, but I would choose the second one because it's in the past tense. Your first sentence uses the past and so I would recommend continuing with the past.

By the way, a lobby is an indoor space, so it's a bit strange to mention trees and a pond near it. I would recommend using the word 'entrance' or something similar instead.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Robert157 on Sat, 30/12/2017 - 20:48

Permalink
Hi there, are both of the following sentences correct? I lived in Rome for 17 years but I barely went traveling in Italy when I was there I lived in Rome for 17 years but I wasn’t going traveling a lot in Italy when I was there

Hello Robert157,

Both of those sentences are grammatically correct. They may or may not be the sentences you need, of course - that will depend upon the context and your intended meaning.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, Thanks a lot for your comment. Which one will be better if i intend to explain why I dont know of many places in italy although I’m from there and i dont enjoy going travelling ? I’m just asking because people are always surprised when i say i’ve nevEr been in supposedly famous cities in italy they’ve gone to on holidays

Hello Robert157,

Your first sentence, with both verbs in the past simple, is probably best for most contexts, as you're probably looking back on your time in Rome as a finished period of time. I'd say something like 'I lived in Rome for 17 years but didn't travel much' (or 'hardly traveled at all while I was there').

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Also how would you say it if u were asked the same question ? Regards, Robert

Submitted by Criscuotardo on Wed, 20/12/2017 - 11:47

Permalink
Hi, I'm searching for the meaning of "Diobestiola". Can you please help me? Thank you!

Hi Criscuotardo,

I've never seen that word before. It certainly doesn't look like an English word so I'm afraid we can't help you with this.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yasser Azizi on Sat, 02/12/2017 - 18:18

Permalink
In the exercise section I found these 2 sentences: 1- If she could see him she would be proud of him. 2- If you moved away you might not see them again. I answered that they both are conditionals, but the auto-correcting gave me wrong for the second sentence!! So please could you help me to stinguish the hypothetical from the conditional?? Thank you in advance

Hello Yasser Azizi,

I'm sorry those answers confused you. We are going to change the exercise so that options 2 and 3 are the same. It will say something like 'The past tense is used to describe hypothetical situations in the present or future. These may be part of a conditional structure.' because really these are the same thing. We'll also change the page so that the explanation is clearer.

It will probably take us a few days to do this. We're very grateful that you took the time to ask us about this. The page will be better because of you!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Polina K on Wed, 29/11/2017 - 08:25

Permalink
hello! Could anybody please help me. I am not sure about tense in this case: - I called you at 5 pm yesterday but you didn't answer. - I (to be) busy all day.

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 30/11/2017 - 06:55

In reply to by Polina K

Permalink

Hello Polina,

We're happy to help with questions like this, but in the future please tell us what you think the answer is and why. That way we can help you understand it better.

In this case, 'was' (past simple) is the best form. Sometimes the past continuous works well in a situation like this, but since 'be' isn't used very often in the past continuous, 'was' is the best choice here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by naaka on Sun, 19/11/2017 - 14:37

Permalink
Hello, 'The bribery Commission alleged that the accused had had given information....' I have found this sentence from a local newspaper. I would like to know could we use 'had' like this? I mean back to back. Please help me with this. Thank you.

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 20/11/2017 - 06:53

In reply to by naaka

Permalink

Hello naaka,

The answer is that we can't use 'had' in this way! The sentence is not correct and I can only guess that it is a misprint. It is possible to use either 'had given' or 'had had' in this sentence - both are examples of the past perfect using the third forms of the verbs 'give' and 'had', respectively.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rvnn4 on Mon, 13/11/2017 - 10:16

Permalink
Hello all I am studying English but I didn't understand the difference between was/were and V2 someone help me please :)

Hello rvnn4,

I'm not sure what you mean exactly. 'Was' and 'were' are the second forms (past simple) of the verb 'be'. They can be used as main verbs or as as auxiliary verbs in various structures. 'V2' is not something we use on these pages but it may be an abbreviation for the second form of the verb. If so then 'was' and 'were' would be examples of 'V2'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fahri on Fri, 03/11/2017 - 17:12

Permalink
Hello dear team, You said: Past perfect: I had worked Past perfect continuous:I had been working What the different from: I have worked I have been working. Is there any different meaning from the both sentences? Thank you very much

Hello again fahri,

The two forms you mention are present perfect simple ('have worked') and present perfect continuous ('have been working'). These are explained on this Quick grammar page and in this language focus video.

The difference between past perfect and present perfect is explained on our talking about the past page.

Please take a look at these pages and then if you have any other specific questions, don't hesitate to ask us!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ashazimzadeh on Sun, 22/10/2017 - 19:54

Permalink
Hello all Please kindly let me know the difference in the meaning of these two sentences: 1.It is time for you to do something about it. 2.It is time you did something about it. Regards

Hello ashazimzadeh,

There is no difference in meaning between these two sentences and both are correct. 2 would probably be considered more correct in traditional grammars, but 1 is very commonly used and is also correct. In structures like the one in sentence 2, the past tense has a present meaning.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by davelurch on Thu, 02/11/2017 - 03:03

In reply to by ashazimzadeh

Permalink
The difference in meaning is: 'It's time to do something' would normally suggest that this is a good time to do something or it was planned for now. 'It's time you did something' would normally suggest that the best time to do it has actually passed. It's overdue. You really should have done it before now. The second phrase is often used with these extra words to emphasise how late you are in doing it:- It's about time you did something. It's high time you did something. (more emphatic)

Submitted by Tim Leahm on Sun, 22/10/2017 - 15:25

Permalink
Hi, i would like to understand the difference between I did my home work, I had done my home work and I have done my home work

Hello Tim,

These tenses (past simple, past perfect and present perfect) are explained in some detail on our talking about the past page. Please take a look there and then if you have any more specific questions, please don't hesitate to ask us.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nadarali1996 on Thu, 19/10/2017 - 12:11

Permalink
Hello Sir, I hope you are fine and fit. I have a question that I want to ask from you. What is difference between these two sentences? I has been waiting for them for 2 hours. And I was waiting for them for 20 minutes.

Hello nadarali1996,

These sentences have different time references and a context is required to understand what those time references are.

The correct form of the first sentence is 'I have been waiting for them for 2 hours'. We use this when the waiting began in the past and continues up to the present - you are still waiting as you speak.

In the second sentence the waiting is all in the past; you are not waiting now and are telling someone about a past event. Generally we use 'was waiting' rather than 'waited' when the action was interrupted by another action. For example, we might say 'I was waiting for them for two hours before they arrived', where their arrival interrupts the waiting. However, without knowing the context of the sentence we can only guess at this.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Slava B on Fri, 01/09/2017 - 10:46

Permalink
So,as I have understood it,if I wanted to emphasize that she had not done her work by some moment in the past I would choose Past P.,and if I want to emphasize that her work still is not done(at present moment) then I choose Present P., and Past Simple (She told...) does't influence on my choice(Past P. or Present P.) ?

Hello Slava,

I wouldn't say the past simple doesn't influence the tense in the second clause, but it certainly doesn't determine it automatically. The two different forms express different meanings, i.e. refer to different times.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Slava B on Thu, 31/08/2017 - 19:09

Permalink
Sorry for not placing comment on quite the right page!

Submitted by Slava B on Thu, 31/08/2017 - 18:14

Permalink
Hello again! In one of your comments I saw such example: 'She told me that she has not done her work.' I am a little bit confused,- shouldn't there be Past Perfect here instead of Present Perfect (She told me that she had not done her work) ,since as I see it the fact of her not having done her work refers to the past,i.e. to the time period limited by the moment when she told me this in the past? Or I am wrong in my assumptions?

Hello Slava B,

Both the past perfect and the present perfect are possible here. If the action being described is still current then no tense shift is required. For example, take a look at these:

She said she loved me. [Perhaps she still loves me, perhaps she does not - we do not know]

She said she loves me. [She still loves me]

 

If you say 'has not done' then the situation is still current and has not been remedied - the work has still not been done. If you say 'had not done' then we understand that the situation is no longer current because the work has been completed in the meantime by someone.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by masri.ahm04 on Thu, 17/08/2017 - 17:39

Permalink
Hello I read this statement in Longman text book, in comprehension reading part, which is "... and this time he did succeed." Why the author said that "he did succeed" not "he succeeded" ? Isn't "succeed' a verb ?

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 17/08/2017 - 18:26

In reply to by masri.ahm04

Permalink

Hello masri.ahm04,

Without knowing the context I can't say for sure, but this looks to me like an instance of using 'did' for emphasis. This page explains how to use 'do' for emphasis -- 'did' can be used the same way when talking about the past.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by just human on Mon, 14/08/2017 - 17:14

Permalink
is hyphotheses spelling is correct?

Hello just human,

Almost. The singular is 'hypothesis' and the plural is 'hypotheses'. Please consult a dictionary for questions like this in the future.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fatima k on Tue, 25/07/2017 - 18:52

Permalink
hello,could you tell me the difference between "who does Lucy love?" and "who loves Lucy?" .And is the second structure grammatically correct?Thanks in advance.

Hello again fatima,

In the first question, the subject is 'Lucy' and 'who' is the object of the verb. In the second question, 'who' is the subject and 'Lucy' is the object. Both are grammatically correct.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team