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 Basel Ali on Fri, 21/07/2017 - 12:11

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what is the different between? 1.He had worked there since July. 2 He had been working since July.

Submitted by tatianna_paula on Sat, 15/07/2017 - 19:26

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Hello If I said "What if I don't like it?" it would be wrong? Thank you

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 16/07/2017 - 07:10

In reply to by tatianna_paula

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Hello tatianna_paula,

That sentence is fine grammatically. It may not be appropriate for a particular context but it is grammatically correct.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rjtkorea on Tue, 11/07/2017 - 02:11

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Which should I use when talking about an event in the past that is still true today: 2002 (is/was) the year the festival began.

Hello rjtkorea,

You can use either 'is' or 'was' in this sentence without any real change in meaning.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by D.Delicour on Mon, 10/07/2017 - 22:28

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How exactly do these differ and what purpose do the clear inconsistencies severe. Prn. - Pat. - Prt. - Fut. I. Was - Am - Will be He, She, it. Was - Is - Will be You, We, they. Were - Are - Will be I, You, We, They. Had - Have - Will have He, She, it. Had - Has - Will have I, You, We, They. Did - do - Will do He, She, it. Did - does - Will do

Hello D.Delicour,

I'm afraid I'm not sure what you mean. They differ exactly as you can see: different forms have different meanings (primarily in terms of time reference). As to the purpose of inconsistences the question presupposes that there is a defined purpose for linguistic structures and this is not the case. Languages grow organically through use and the systems and rules we have are descriptive, not proscriptive. In other words, we describe language as it is conventionally used; we do not set rules which must then be followed. Whether or not there are inconsistences is simply the result of how hundreds of millions of people use the language and how it evolves over time. There is no plan to this; it is organic, as I said.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I was just curious of how these arbitrary rules came to pass. I wanted to be sure primarily for an artificial auxiliary language, I am trying to construct, for personal use. English is flatteringly praised for its grammatical freedom, and I want to emulate that while keeping the constructions sound fluidity flawless. I have titled the language Braic. I have only yet written the rudiments. ----- PRONOUNS I/Me - fó. My/Mine - fón. We/Us (speaker and affiliate) - feí. Our/Ours (speaker and affiliate) - feín You - vó. Your/Yours - vón. You (listener and affiliate) - veí. Your/Yours (listener and affiliate) - veín He/Him/She/Her/It - dó. His/Her/Hers/Its - dón. They - deí. Their - deín We/Us (speaker and listener) - úó. Our/Ours (speaker and listener) - úón. We/Us (multiple speakers and/or listeners) - úeí. Our/Ours (multiple speakers and/or listeners) - úéín. Possessive -n/-en Plural -eí ----- some general rules: noun -a (ex. coúva - government) relating to -i (ex. coúvi - governmental) verb -ec (ex. coúvec - govern) adjective/adverb -d/-yd (ex. véd - green) past particable -t/tic (ex. adect - added / tic adec - did add) present partisable -té/téc (ex. adecté - adding / téc adec - am/is/are adding) future particable -tó/tóc (ex.adectó - n/a / tóc adec - will add) able -ází/áq (ex. kótáq/kótází - thinkable) -ish/-esque -eck (ex. flyúeck - dampish) -er -* (ex. leíb* - worker) plural -eí (ex. ecpieí - Spaiards) possesive -n/-en (ex. Danteín - Dantes / Deímíenen - Damions) and so on...

Hello D.Delicour,

That sounds like a great project. I'd suggest you do an internet search for 'conlang', as I bet you could find others interested in your work.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by abc96 on Mon, 03/07/2017 - 19:53

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Is it okay if I write "this photo was taken blurred"? Actually I want to understand that the photo wasn't clear.

Hello abc96,

'Blurred' is an adjective, not an adverb, and so should describe the photo itself, not the way in which it was taken. You can say 'The/This photo is (a bit/slightly) blurred', for example.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

But wouldn't that mean his sentence was still grammatically correct? 'The thief was caught stealing'. In this example "stealing" describes the thief, rather than the act of getting caught. Though it will be said, your advice is well put.

Hello D.Delicour,

The position of the word means that it can only be an adverb. 'Blurred' cannot function as an adverb, however. It could be an adjective if it preceded the noun ('The blurred photo...'), but then the sentence itself would be highly unnatural: all photos which exist have been taken and so a sentence announcing this fact would be very odd.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

you're right, that does make sense. Though, could it be said, that 'blurred', in this instance, was used, not to denote the past participle, but as a descriptor of its state or quality in being blurred?

Hello again,

That is possible and in that case it would be describing the photo rather than the act of taking it, meaning it would still have an adjectival role and would precede the noun.

The problem with the word order is clear if you replace the word 'blurred' with a different adjective such as 'clear' or 'precise'. Their function means they need to be positioned before the noun.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by beckysyto on Sat, 17/06/2017 - 09:34

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Hi :) I have some confusion about the appropriate use of tenses in a specific context as folows: Spring Festival is a very important festival because it tells us we need to forget all the things that HAVE HAPPENED / HAPPENED in the past ... Which tense should be used, simple past tense, present perfect tense or both? Please tell me why. Many thanks :)

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 17/06/2017 - 15:55

In reply to by beckysyto

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Hello beckysyto,

You could use either 'have happened' or 'happened' here. The present perfect form more clearly includes everything that has happened up until this moment. The past simple form could also imply that, too, though. Although I don't know a lot about the Spring Festival, I'd probably just use the past simple form, since it's focusing more on making a separation between the past and the present (if I've understood it correctly).

I'd also refer you to a useful explanation of these two different tenses in the Cambridge Dictionary that you might find useful.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by crownriches on Fri, 09/06/2017 - 02:36

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Hello pls help me these.. I read somewhere that if English is ur second language and ur thoughts are always in ur mother's tongue when expressing urself in English, it will always affect ur mastering of English. I belief this is wot confuses me most time in d appropriateness of present n past tenses in conversations like these.. " l don't just move here,l ve been here since last year " or " l didn't just move here l ve been here since last year " don't and didn't which is correct in conversation going on between two person now. And also "That was why l didn't call u" or "that is why l didn't call u" " l will tell u wot l told her n in response to d statement.. Which was or which is" "This is why u left or this was why u left" What are d correct uses in d sentences above I will b glad sir if u can give me a simple way to master this. Thanks in anticipation Thank u sir

Hello crownriches,

For most people, it's quite difficult to master a new language. Trying to think in the new language is certainly a good way to practise it, so I'd encourage you to do it as much as possible. There are some other useful tips on how to get the most out of our site on our Frequently asked questions page.

As for the sentences you asked about, in the first, 'didn't' is the correct form. You could also use the present perfect ('haven't just moved'). In the second and fourth sentences, both 'was' and 'is' are correct. If you use the past form, it gives a bit more sense of the past moment, but they mean the same thing.

I'm afraid I don't understand what you're asking in your third question. Please feel free to ask again, but please explain it a bit more.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by crownriches on Thu, 25/05/2017 - 17:51

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Hello help me out with these; something happened and someone said this is on me, and another person responded this wasn't your fault. What's d difference: what u just said wasn't nonsense and what u just said isn't nonsense

Hello crownriches,

In most contexts there is no difference. If we say ...wasn't nonsense... then we are referring to something at the moment of speaking. However, this does not mean that it is not still the case now. If we say ...isn't nonsense... then we make it clear that it is still true now. The only difference would be if what was said was nonsense then but now makes sense, which is fairly unlikely.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by crownriches on Thu, 25/05/2017 - 17:40

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Which are correct; l didn't know it was u or l didn't know it is u Successive presidents have maintained d culture of excellence and tradition of being d best up to my predecessor who also passed it on to me or Successive presidents had maintained d culture of excellence and tradition of being d best up to my predecessor who also passed it on to me

Hello crownriches,

We use the present perfect only when there is an unfinished time period. In this example the time period is finished as it says 'up to my predecessor'. Therefore 'have maintained' is certainly incorrect.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by felipeur on Wed, 10/05/2017 - 05:23

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Hello, I'd like to know if this sentence is correct: if I had stayed in my last job, I wouldn't been unemployee right now. I'm not sure if is mandatory put 'have' after wouldn't. Thanks a lot for your feedback

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 10/05/2017 - 07:52

In reply to by felipeur

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Hello felipeur,

The correct sentence is:

 

If I had stayed in my last job, I wouldn't be unemployed right now.

 

As the result is a present result we need 'wound't be'. For past results we use 'wouldn't have been'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by harmonicalove17 on Wed, 10/05/2017 - 05:06

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Hello,pls.help me figure out the difference between these two: "I had to stopped by to tell him that i wouldnt be at the group meeting at the school that evening" but my friend told me that it should be "I stopped by to tell him that i wouldnt be at the group meeting at the school that evening" are these the same ?.

hello harmonicalove17,

Your friend is correct: the first sentence is not grammatical and the second sentence is correct.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by chiang on Mon, 01/05/2017 - 06:40

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Hello Sir! Is the following sentence grammatically correct? "There have been times in my life when I did nothing but work or study." I saw this sentence in a text book. The second part of the sentence is in simple past tense, I wounder if past perfect tense should be used in the first part of the sentence. i.e. There " had been " times in my life when I " did " nothing but work or study. Thank you!

Hello chiang,

The sentence is correct with both present perfect and past perfect for the first verb. The present perfect makes the verb refer to your life from birth until now, whereas 'did' refers to specific periods within that time. The past perfect would make the verb refer to past periods in your life, and 'did' could refer to specific periods within that longer period.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aoll212 on Fri, 21/04/2017 - 11:29

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Hello again Sirs, As what this site is telling us about using past tense in future condidtions, Is this grammatically correct? "I really wanted to learn from him" Why do we have to use past tense form of verb in future conditions when it is in fact didn't occurred yet? Tnx

Hello again Aoll212,

'I really wanted to learn from him' is grammatically correct, but refers to a past time, at least in a general context. When the explanation above says the past can be used to refer to the present or future, it's referring to conditional structures -- for example, the second conditional.

Grammatical terms can be confusing, so it's important to see that there is a difference between a verb tense and the time a verb refers to. As it is used on this page, 'tense' refers to the form of a word. (There are many other descriptions of the English verbal system that also speak of only two tenses, e.g. the Wikipedia.) Different verb tenses can be used to speak about different times.

The past simple tense, for example, can refer to an imaginary future time (in 'He could get a new job if he really tried') or to something that happened yesterday (in 'Steve worked at McDonald's as a young man.') In a similar way, a present tense can be used to talk about a future time ('I'm going to the park tomorrow') or to talk about a past time (in storytelling).

I hope this helps clear it up for you a bit.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sudha2017 on Tue, 18/04/2017 - 13:06

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Dear Experts, I wish to know the difference between "wasn't" and "didn't". Please help me to understand which verb forms are correct in the below sentences 1. The girls were playing excitedly in the park and wasn't wanting to come in when it began raining. 2. The girls were playing excitedly in the park and didn't want to come in when it began raining. Thank you Sudha

Submitted by Aoll212 on Sun, 16/04/2017 - 09:07

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Hello, could you please explain it further about the past tense I was corrected a while ago. ''Further, basic compulsory points must ACHIEVED first to be able to maintain a clear, comprehensive and rewarding experience using the web.'' I put 'achieve' at first, then they correct mine. Why is that? It did not happened yet right? Why do we need a past tense in it.

Hello Aoll212,

I'd recommend you ask your teacher or whoever corrected your sentence for more information. 'must achieved' by itself is not correct. I suppose the form you need here is a passive one: 'must be achieved'. Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Najid Ali on Wed, 12/04/2017 - 15:26

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we use the second form of a verb in past indefinite and "Read" is also the send form of a verb "we read the notebook" In above sentence how I can understand that it's a past indefinite

Hello Najid Ali,

The only difference between 'read' (present form) and 'read' (past form) is the pronunciation. In writing we must use the context to tell us whether we are referring to past time or present time.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Najid Ali on Fri, 31/03/2017 - 18:51

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He did not want or wanted?

Hello Najid Ali,

The negative form of the past simple is [did not + base form of the verb]. Therefore 'he did not want' would be correct.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Alex H on Wed, 29/03/2017 - 15:11

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Hello! I've just read comments about sequence of tenses. I used to think that only object clauses depend on sequence of clauses (she said she LIVED (now) in London). But there are many websites that says sequence of tenses isn't used with other subordinate clauses too. Peter M explained the example "he didn't get a job because his English isn't / wasn't well" and wrote that the second sentence could contain present tense (isn't) although the main sentence is past action. So, I concluded that clauses of reason didn't depend on sequence of tenses. Could you tell me which types of subordinate clauses also don't depend on sequence of tenses?

Hello Alex H,

In my answer I made the point that the use of different verb forms is really based not upon the nature of the clause but on the logical meaning being expressed. In the examples I quoted the issue was whether or not the action or state is still true or not (or is not known). Looking for a rule which is dependent on the type of subordinate clause is a false path, I would suggest, and is exactly the mistake which the earlier poster was making in his question.

 

To give you just one more example, it is perfectly fine to say all of the following:

 

She said she had lived in London.

She said she lived in London.

She said she has lived in London.

She said she lives in London.

She said she was going to live in London.

She said she is going to live in London.

She said she would live in London.

She said she will live in London.

 

And many other forms are possible as well. The choice - and it is a choice - is the speaker's, and depends not upon the nature of the clause but on the meaning which the speaker wishes to express.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you!!! Basically, I'm shocked:) I thought the second sentence in my example could contain only past tense I thought the second sentence in my example CAN contain only past tense

Hi Alex H,

In this example 'could' seems to make more sense, as the sentence was written in the past and you are referring to something which is a completed action (the forming of that sentence). If you were speaking in more general terms then the present tense would be more appropriate. For example:

I thought that the type of sentence in my example can contain only past tense.

Here you are no longer talking about one sentence written in the past, but a type of sentence. Again, it is a question of how you see the action, not the type of clause.

I think this page will be helpful to you on this point. As you'll see, the first statement on that page is

Many teachers and learners think that tense forms in reported speech are complex.

In fact, "reported speech" follows exactly the same rules as the rest of the language.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Asgharkhan8 on Sat, 25/03/2017 - 03:43

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Are both these sentences correct or not? Did you go to the job today? Why didn't you go to the job today?

Submitted by Najid Ali on Wed, 22/03/2017 - 17:04

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we use +ing with the first form of a verb in continuous while using the was were but sometimes we use past participle with was/were why you do this?

Submitted by Widescreen on Fri, 10/03/2017 - 01:36

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Hi team, I am confused about the sequence of tenses in a sentence with main and subordinate clause. I understand that in general, if the main clause is in past tense, the sub clause will be in the corresponding past tense. But : Is it true that If the main clause is in the past tense, the subordinate clause can be in any tense in the following exceptions: 1. this subordinate clause expresses place, reason, comparison . Eg: He didn't get the job because his english isn't good (It doesn't sound right to me. Should it be: he didn't get the job because his english wasn't good ) 2. when subordinate clause is an adjective clause. Eg. yesterday I met a girl who sells cakes vs yesterday I met a girl who sold me a cake (again the first sentence doesn't seem right. Should it be : yesterday I met a girl who sold cakes ? But if it was correct then what is the different in term of meaning between the above two sentences?) 3. When subordinate clause start by "than" Eg. He loved me more than he loves you vs. He loved me more than he loved you vs. he loved me more than he will love you. Are all these sentences correct? thank you.