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 syazain on Tue, 10/11/2015 - 13:52

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Hello, I get real confused of the use of past tense. For instance 'it took me ages to notice that the guy WAS/IS from the walking dead' and also 'my mom told me I WAS/AM a good cook'. Sometimes, english speakers tend to mix up past and present tense in the same sentence. Please offer me an explanation for this rather bizarre situation

Hello syazain,

I can see how this can be confusing. Notice that both sentences are clearly talking about a past situation, as they start with the past simple verb forms 'it took me ages' and 'my mom told me'. You could just always use a past verb form after these phrases, for example 'was' in your two sentences, but a present form such as 'is' is also commonly used when the phrase is also true in the present.

In your first sentence, the guy was from the programme in the past, but he also still is now in the present. In your second sentence, presumably you are still a good cook in the present. This is why the present form is correct here.

In some cases, only the past form is correct. For example, 'My uncle told me that he stole eggs from a nearby farm when he was a boy.' Here only the past form 'stole' is correct, unless, of course, my uncle is still a boy and still stealing eggs from that farm.

I hope that clarifies it for you a bit.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team 

Submitted by eli76 on Tue, 10/11/2015 - 09:28

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Hi The learn English Team, Is correct the phrase the men whilw hw was still at school? I do not know which kind of verbs I have to put aferte since , before, whenever thaks elisabetta

Hello elisabetta,

Is the sentence you're asking about 'The men while he was still at school'? I'm afraid that sentence is not grammatical because it lacks a main verb – you must say something about the men. I'm not sure I understand what you'd like to know, but you might find our verbs in time clauses and if clauses page helpful – please take a look. If that doesn't help you, please ask again.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sapphiras on Tue, 03/11/2015 - 23:32

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Hi :) for wish "I wish it wasn’t so cold", should it be "I wish it weren't so cold"?

Hello sapphiras,

Both 'wasn't' and 'weren't' are possible here. I would say that 'wasn't' is a little more common in modern English, but both are used.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Rafael darn on Fri, 16/10/2015 - 05:18

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Hello, are these sentences wrong The boy wanted to know who had written the letter. The boy wanted to know who had killed his parents The boy wanted to know who wrote the letter (is this correct) I have got a hunch that this sentence is wrong because wrote it's supposed to be in past perfect. Could you explain to me if it's wrong

Hello Rafael darn,

All of those sentences are correct. In each sentence the past simple and the past perfect are possible in the second clause:

The boy wanted to know who wrote / had written the letter.

The boy wanted to know who killed / had killed his parents.

The boy wanted to know who wrote / had written the letter.

There is no real difference in meaning in these contexts.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Danielyong96 on Thu, 15/10/2015 - 09:23

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''Because my rich dad had explained the quadrants to me, I was better able to see that small differences grow into large differences when measured over the years a person spends working.'' I'm confused why the past tense and present tense mixed up in this sentence.( grow, measured, spend)

Hello Danielyong96,

The present tense is used here because the writer is speaking about general truths. 'when measured' is actually part of a reduced clause – the full clause is 'when they are measured'. In this case, 'measured' is part of a passive verb ('is measured'), and this verb is also in the present simple for the same reason.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by davidout on Sat, 03/10/2015 - 20:28

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Hello, When would I use either one of the following sentences in terms of tenses: Dancing at the top amateur and professional levels, David competed in several Ballroom Championships. or Dancing at the top amateur and professional levels, David has competed in several Ballroom Championships. or David has competed at the top amateur and professional levels. He has participated in several Ballroom Championships. Thanks, D

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 04/10/2015 - 07:23

In reply to by davidout

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Hello davidout,

All of those are correct. The participle clause 'Dancing at...' takes its time reference from the second clause, and so can be used with almost any verb form. The last example is simply two present perfect forms in successive clauses, and is perfectly correct.

Each sentence is correct. Which is the one you need depends on the context and the speaker's intention.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mohsen.k77 on Mon, 14/09/2015 - 04:17

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Hello The Learn EnglishTeam, Sorry if I'm asking a silly question! But I'd like to know which one is correct: "simple past" or " past simple" because I've seen both in many texts. Best Wishes Mohsen

Submitted by cuulin on Tue, 18/08/2015 - 19:19

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hi .pls help me about this sentence . "what book made jenny cry? why does 'cry' not in past tense ?

Hello cuulin,

The structure here is 'make someone do something', where 'do' is the base form/infinitive without 'to' and the tense is shown by the form of 'make'. For example:

He made her wait in his office. ['made' = past; 'wait' =  base form]

She always makes us work hard. ['makes' = present; 'work' = base form]

What book made Jenny cry? ['made' = past; 'cry' = base form]

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nandishchandra on Tue, 28/07/2015 - 10:45

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Hi LearnEnglish Team, I have little difficulty in using main verb with helping verb 'did'. Example Sentences are down below, 1.i did + learn english. 2.i + learn english. is there any difference between second part of these two sentences in sound? in which sentence verb 'learn' retains its cent-percent or complete verb form? i believe in first sentence 'learn' has some form of 'participle form' with 'verb form'. or does it have noun form,because, in the below sentence 1.i did learning. Here learning is a gerund,which is nothing but form of noun... likewise in this sentence ,'i did learn english',is 'learn english' a noun form of verb form... i would like to summarise my understanding with questions below, in first sentence, is 'learn english' part 1.a verb in noun form,or 2.a verb in participle form,or 3.Just a noun...? please correct me if am wrong.. Thanks, Best Regards, Nandish..

Submitted by Touqeer younas on Mon, 06/07/2015 - 12:42

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i dont know much about english .... kindly guide from i should start learn english ......i mean which lesson ... im not native english speaker....

Hello Touqeer younas,

I'd recommend you read the advice under 'How do I get started?' on our Help page. It would also be a good idea to spend some time exploring the site using the menu at the top of the screen (Home, Listen & Watch, etc.).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mary Tee on Tue, 23/06/2015 - 15:32

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Thank you very much for the explanation, Kirk. Regards, Mary

Submitted by Mary Tee on Mon, 22/06/2015 - 14:03

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Hello The LearnEnglish Team, Which of the following sentences is correct? 1. We saw a suspicious looking man climb over the fence? or 2. We saw a suspicious looking man climbed over the fence? What is the explanation for the choice?

Hello Mary,

The first sentence is correct (though 'suspicious looking' should be 'suspicious-looking') and the second is not. Verbs of perception such as 'see' are usually followed by non-finite verb forms such as the bare infinitive ('climb') or an -ing form ('climbing'). Using an -ing form implies that the action is seen as it is in progress, whereas the infinitive form indicates that the action was seen completed.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ria24 on Fri, 19/06/2015 - 14:34

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Hello Is this sentence grammatically correct? "In 1418, what was by far the grandest building project in Florence had still to be completed." If it is correct, what tense is this?

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 20/06/2015 - 10:06

In reply to by ria24

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Hello ria24,

This sentence is correct except for the position of 'still'. 'had to be completed' is the form 'have to + verb' (indicating obligation or necessity) in the simple past. Here, 'have' is followed by a passive infinitive ('be completed'). Normally, adverbs are not placed in the middle of this construction; the best location here is before it: '... in Florence still had to be completed'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ateh Halimah on Wed, 10/06/2015 - 08:08

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Hi, Which one is correct for the past tense of the word learn? 1. learnt 2. learned Thank you.

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 11/06/2015 - 07:03

In reply to by Ateh Halimah

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Hello Ateh,

'learnt' is the form used in British English and 'learned' is more common in American English – both are correct. 

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Oscas Po on Wed, 13/05/2015 - 08:19

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Hellow I would like to know which sentence is correct from the two below 1. I don't have assurance whether I will come or not 2. I'm not sure whether I will come or not Thank you

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 13/05/2015 - 16:40

In reply to by Oscas Po

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Hello Oscas Po,

The second sentence is correct.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mpihow on Tue, 12/05/2015 - 00:58

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I have many dificulties to understand past perfect and past perfect continuous. I am studying very hard. but i don´t get achieve my target.

Hello Mpihow,

I'd recommend you read through our past perfect page, including the comments below, where Peter recently helped another user with this same issue. I'd also recommend taking a look at our perfective and continuous aspect pages.

This is one of the more subtle areas of English grammar, so be please patient with yourself. Most people need a good amount of time and practice to master this.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by adtyagrwl3 on Fri, 24/04/2015 - 15:26

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Thank you, Sir. You help is much appreciated.

Submitted by neh7272 on Sun, 19/04/2015 - 08:58

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Sir Which one of following sentences is correct . Gary's game was uninstalled automatically and further reinstallation is not taking place. Or Gary 's game has been uninstalled automatically and further reinstallation is not taking place

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 20/04/2015 - 07:01

In reply to by neh7272

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Hello neh,

That really depends on what you want to say. For example, if you view the action as recent or being connected to the present, then the present perfect form would make more sense.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by neh7272 on Fri, 17/04/2015 - 18:38

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Sir What is the difference between - " tom' s game got uninstalled automatically " and " tom's game has got uninstalled automatically ".

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 18/04/2015 - 14:20

In reply to by neh7272

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Hello neh7272,

These are examples of non-standard passive forms. The standard form is [be + past participle]:

Tom's game was uninstalled automatically

and

Tom's game has been uninstalled automatically

We can, in informal speech, replace 'be' with 'has got', as in your examples.

The difference between these is the tense: was (got) is past simple, while 'has been' (has got) is present perfect. To find out about the uses of these forms, look here for information on the present perfect, and here for information on the past simple.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by khurramsiddiqui on Fri, 17/04/2015 - 15:37

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my question is a little twisted one. like we say i got my house built by masons. masons built my house my house was gotten built by me from masons. my house was got built by masons by me. is that possible or not

Hello khurramsiddiqui 

i got my house built by masons.

We would say 'I had my house built by masons', meaning that I paid for them to do it for me.

Masons built my house.

This is fine.

My house was gotten built by me from masons.

We would say this without 'gotten'.

My house was got built by masons by me.

This is not a correct sentence.
 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Tea

Submitted by adtyagrwl3 on Tue, 14/04/2015 - 14:31

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Hello Sir, I would need your help here. This part of the article is confusing me: "to refer to the present or future in conditions: He could get a new job if he really tried. If Jack was playing they would probably win." 1) Can't these sentences be rephrased as: He could get a new job if he was really trying. If Jack played they would probably win 2)Are we talking about impossible conditions here? 3) Can we replace the words 'could' and 'would' with 'can' and 'will', as they are not highlighted in the article as the required past tense words. 4) Will these sentences refer to past if I add 'have' to them, like '..would have probably won' and 'He could have gotten a new...' 5) Could you please explain a bit more on how to phrase such sentences. Sorry for so many questions but I am finding it really hard to understand this concept!

Hi adtyagrwl3,

1) The two sentences you propose are also correct. The past continuous could be more appropriate in some situations and the past simple more appropriate in others.

2) In most conditional forms, the past is used to express an unreal (which sometimes could mean 'impossible') situation. Please see our Conditionals 1 and 2 pages for more on this.

3) No, 'can' and 'will' cannot generally replace 'could' and 'would', with the notable exception of transactional requests (e.g. 'Could you pass me the salt?' can be rephrased as 'Can you pass me the salt?). See also our can or could and will or would pages.

4) Please see our modals + have page for more on this topic.

5) I think the Conditionals 1 and 2 pages will help with this, but if you have more specific questions after reading them, feel free to ask.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nkmg on Sun, 29/03/2015 - 02:44

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Hello teacher : may you help me please ? I Have two question First : I watched video appear girl get out from room catching something and saying "i found it " i don't know why she didn't say " i have found it " second : girl has just finished cookies then run to her grandpa catching Cookies dish and say I made these for you why she didn't say " i have made these for you " this the video link http://www.englishcentral.com/video/23378/a-surprise-visitor

Submitted by grammarmonster on Sat, 28/03/2015 - 19:59

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If I am not wrong, two past tense in one sentence is acceptable, but is this sentence grammatically sound? 'the outcome was known well before the vote was casted.'

Hello grammarmonster,

Yes, two past forms in the same sentence can be correct. Your sentence is correct except for one detail: 'casted' should be 'cast'. This is because 'cast' is irregular: cast, cast, cast (i.e. the bare infinitive, simple past and past participle are all identical).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by orton on Thu, 19/03/2015 - 23:15

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Hi Kirk, How could "He said that he is thirsty." is possible when the reported words are not true at the time of reporting ? In the previous example when I report to his sister John has had a drink , so at the time of reporting he is not thirsty. Therefore "is" should not be possible. What do you say ?

Hello orton,

I'm sorry, I read your comment quickly and hadn't noticed that you'd given John water already. If that's the case, then 'was' would clearly be correct and 'is' would not be.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by orton on Wed, 18/03/2015 - 21:06

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Sir in one of the grammar book I found " 1) In indirect speech if the reported words are still true at the time of reporting then the tenses do not have to back shift. " It also says " 2) In indirect speech if the reported speech is made just after the original statement then the tenses do not have to back shift." My question is - If point 2 is satisfied but point 1 is not, then is it possible to not back shift tense i.e; If reported speech is made just after the original statement BUT the reported words are no longer true then is it correct to not back shift the tense ? For example - John tells me "I am thirsty." Hearing this I get him water in just few seconds. John drinks water and a minute later I report to his sister - John said that he was/is thirsty. Which one would be correct here Was or Is ? Grammar book also mentioned - If the reported words are still true at the time of reporting and the speaker believes the original speaker then tenses do not have to be back shifted. My second question is if the speaker believes the original speaker BUT the words are not true at the time of reporting then is it correct not to back shift the tense ? Thank you. Please advise me on it. I'm too confused . Your help would be highly appreciated.

Hi orton,

Personally, I'd probably say 'John said he was thirsty', though using 'is' could also be used in the situation you describe.

Could you give an example of the second point you ask about?

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by orton on Sun, 15/03/2015 - 14:08

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In indirect speech present perfect tense is back shifted to past perfect tense. But why I see in news articles that the present perfect tense is often not back shifted to past perfect tense ? For example - The President said that investigators have conducted hearings on different issues. (Direct speech - President said "The investigators have conducted hearings on different issues" Why often I see in news articles that present perfect tense is not back shifted to past perfect tense though in almost every book its written present perfect tense is to be converted to past perfect tense in reported speech ? Please advise me on it. Thank You

Hello orton,

Although we often shift the verb's time reference back in reported speech, this is not always the case. Sometimes the verb can stay in the original form. For example, both of these are grammatically correct:

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

She said she loved me. [she loved me then, we don't know about now]

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bharathkumarreddy on Wed, 11/03/2015 - 18:01

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Hello, what is the difference between following two sentences 1.she had been working since july. 2.she has been working since july. And which one of the following sentences is correct 1) If i were playing, . 2) If i was playing.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 12/03/2015 - 06:50

In reply to by bharathkumarreddy

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Hello bharathkumarreddy,

The first sentence is an example of the past perfect continuous while the second is an example of the present perfect continuous. For explanations of when to use each of these take a look at these pages:

past perfect

present perfect

perfective aspect

present perfect simple and continuous

With regard to your second question, 'were' (the first option) used to be the correct form. However, in modern English both 'was' and 'were' are acceptable.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team