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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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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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.

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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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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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Submitted by Raghad hm on Fri, 26/01/2018 - 13:52

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Hello, I'd like to know if we use "once" with simple past or present perfect, and why? For example: Have you ever gone scuba diving? No, I haven't. But once I ( went, have gone) snorekling. Which one is correct and why? I wrote this example to assure that I don't mean " the number of times I've done something" .. I mean " one day".

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 27/01/2018 - 08:23

In reply to by Raghad hm

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Hello Raghad,

This depends on how 'once' is used.

'Once' can mean 'one time' and with this meaning it can be used with the past simple (when the time is defined) or the present perfect (when the time is not defined and is unfinished:

I've been scuba diving once. [in my life]

I went scuba diving once as a child. [a single complete time in the past]

 

'Once' can also mean 'some time ago' and with this meaning it is used with the past simple.

Once I enjoyed watching westerns but I don't anymore.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by learning on Wed, 17/01/2018 - 05:19

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Please tell me why I should use, (Q.No. 6) -- 'We had never seen anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.' instead of using -- 'We never saw anything quite so extraordinary in our lives.'

Hello learning,

The sentence describes a state which was true in the past and continued up to another point in the past, when it stopped being true. For this we use the past perfect and the past simple.

You would use the past simple if the time described was finished. In other words, you would use the past simple if (a) the situation did not change and (b) the period of time (the life) was complete. Thus we would use this to talk in a historical sense about someone who is no longer alive:

He never saw anything so extraordinary in his life. [he is no longer alive]

 

If the person is still alive, we use a present perfect to show an unfinished time up to the moment of speaking:

I've never seen anything so extraordinary in my life. [I am still alive]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, Thank you. Is "We have never seen anything quite so extraordinary in our lives." correct, too?

Hello learning,

Yes, that is correct.

The phrase quite so extraordinary is less common in modern English than quite as extraordinary, but both are correct.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, Thanks for confirming that "We have never seen anything quite so extraordinary in our lives." is correct. Let’s say I am talking to a friend about my brother. Which of the following is correct? 1: My brother has never seen snow. 2: My brother had never seen snow. 3: My brother never sees snow. 4: My brother never saw snow. A lot of people are confused about this. Thanks as usual!

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 26/05/2018 - 10:24

In reply to by learning

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Hi learning,

All four of these sentences could be correct. Which one is best depends on the context in which it is used. I'm afraid it would take me quite a long time to explain all of the different possibilities, so please look at our pages in this section for each of these verb forms (present perfect, past perfect, present simple and past simple), where you can see the different meanings they can have. If you have a specific question about a specific form in a specific context, please don't hesitate to ask us, but we generally just don't answer long questions. We simply don't have the time, I'm afraid!

Also, please do not post the same question twice in the future. We hadn't answered your question yet because we aren't normally able to answer more than one question from the same person on any given day.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, Let's say I am talking to someone about my brother who is still alive. Which of the following is correct? A: My brother has never seen snow. B: My brother had never seen snow. C: My brother never saw snow. D: My brother never sees snow.

Submitted by SahilK on Mon, 01/01/2018 - 16:36

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Hello, Sir I am a student and I do get when people talk about past events but they use present tense. For example, I watched this video where I saw person was talking about his past experience with someone and he was talking like "I am throwing this party, I throw a lot parties for kids. So this kid walks in". I mean why? When one is talking about any past event he/she should use only past tense. Please help. Thank you in advance

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 02/01/2018 - 05:59

In reply to by SahilK

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Hello SahilK,

The present tense is used in informal speech when we are trying to make an anecdote or a joke more lively and more immediate. Your example is a good one for this: the speaker is clearly telling a personal anecdote (which might be funny or surprising) to an audience.

We also use present forms in this way when we are summarising the plot of a film or book.

You can read more about this use of present forms on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Bki on Sun, 31/12/2017 - 03:51

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Hi, I'm teaching students about how 'when' can be used to talk about two actions that happened in a sequence. The course book has clearly laid out two different structures, 'When+past perfect+past simple' and 'When+past simple+past simple', with preciously little explanation. As a teacher, I had to clarify. So, I explained that the past simple is used for the first action when the second action happens as a reaction to the first one, and also when the second action starts well before the first action is over. Here the confusion is rather on what sort of action can be taken as reaction and what we do (use past simple or past perfect for the first action) when the second action happens as reaction (I'm not pretty sure whether some actions in particular examples can be called reaction at all, though) with still a perceivable time gap between the first and the second actions. Thanks.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 31/12/2017 - 08:11

In reply to by Bki

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Hi Bki,

The use of the past perfect and past simple together is not dependent on using 'when'.

When two actions occur in the past we use the past simple for both actions unless

(a) one action is before the other

and

(b) there is some kind of connection (causal, for example) between them

and

(c) we think it is important or helpful to make this clear.

 

For example:

I saw him before I went to the meeting.

I had seen him before I went the meeting.

The first sentence simply tells us about two events and does not suggest any connection. The second sentence tells us that in some way (which will presumably be explained by the context) the first event (seeing him) has an effect on the second. Perhaps seeing him changed my strategy for the meeting in some way. Or perhaps it was part of my strategy to prepare him for the meeting before it started.

 

You can read more about the relationship between the past perfect and past simple on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by beckysyto on Wed, 15/11/2017 - 07:36

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Hi :) What tense(s) should be used with "for the last ... years"? Thanks.

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 16/11/2017 - 07:31

In reply to by beckysyto

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Hello beckysyto,

The present perfect simple or continuous are the tenses that make the most sense because this use of 'last' refers to a time period that extends into the time of speaking. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other tense that would work here, though perhaps I'm just not thinking of one.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Fedoo on Tue, 19/09/2017 - 23:40

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She ------- much better since she left the hospital last month A- felt B-has been feeling C- has felt What is the best answer and why please

Hello Fedoo,

Assuming this is not homework (which your teacher can help you with), we're happy to help you with specific questions like this, but we do ask that you tell us what you think the answer is and why. If we can see how you understand the question, it will help us help you better.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

B BECAUSE we use the present perfect when we are talking about the effects in the present of something that happened in the past.

Submitted by dipakrgandhi on Tue, 19/09/2017 - 17:17

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Sir, I read this conversation used for explaining reported speech : Daughter: I'm going out now, dad. Mother (out of earshot): What did she say? Father: She said she's going out. My questions are : 1) Would it not be appropriate if mother says What does she say or what is she saying instead of " What did she say " . The reason for this , I feel , are : There is no significant time change between when daughter spoke and mother asked the question and so she should not have used past tense immediately. 2) Reporting verb of father should be in present . My reason is : Again there is neither significant time change nor change of place and also the daughter seems to be present there and has yet not left the place as I deduce form the dialogues. Would you help me clear this. Thanking you

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 19/09/2017 - 17:55

In reply to by dipakrgandhi

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Hello dipak,

1) What you say makes sense, but the past simple is by far the most commonly used form here. It only marks the action as in the past -- it can be the very recent past. The present continuous might be possible in some specific situation, e.g. if the speaker had the sense that the daughter hadn't finished saying everything she had to say yet, but the present simple isn't used in this way at all.

2) Yes, the father could 'She says ...' and that would be fine, too.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ItsJustADispos… on Mon, 21/08/2017 - 17:40

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First of all, I'd like to apologize I posted this in the wrong section. I want to know if "After seventy years of British withdrawal...." is grammatically correct. When I read it, to me it seemed like the author was saying that the British withdrawal was a process that took 70 years, and the subject is what happened after the seventy years. In my opinion, the correct way saying what the author means is "Seventy years after the British withdrawal...", but am I even right? (Also, could you please provide feedback on the language used in this comment?)

Hello ItsJustADisposable,

Without knowing what is meant by this phrase, I'm afraid I can't say much for certain, but I can say the second phrasing sounds better to me, too.

We're happy to help out with any sentences from our pages that you have questions on, and occasionally help out with other specific questions about specific sentences, but otherwise I'm afraid we don't provide the service of correcting users texts. 

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by CK on Thu, 20/07/2017 - 08:47

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Hi, i got confused with 3parts 1) "past simple-happened several time in the past", the context "Most evenings we used to stay at home and watch DVDs", the meaning is the actions only happened in the past but not continue now or still continue? 2) "Past in the past", the context "They wanted to buy a computer, but they hadn't saved enough money", the meaning is they had no enough money for a computer back then, but now, they have or don't have a computer? 3) "Future in the past" - the context "It was September. Mary was starting school the next week", the meaning of the "next week" is not happen yet as of the time of speaking or already happened? Hope you can explain further. Thank you.

Hello again CK,

1) 'used to' only refers to past actions that are no longer true. So in this case we do not stay at home and watch DVDs in the present.

2) This form doesn't refer to the present at all, so it is not clear whether they have a computer or not now.

3) The time of speaking is presumably sometime after September, so 'next week' refers to a time that is in the past (from the perspective of the present) but in the future (from the perspective of the past time that is being talked about).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Jack Frost on Sun, 16/07/2017 - 09:12

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I have some problems with the word '' today ''. If I want to describe at the evening about an event happened in this morning, which sentence is grammatically correct. 1. Today,I went to a village. or 2. Today,I go to a village.

Hello Jack Frost,

The first sentence is correct if you are speaking after the trip (for example, if you are speaking in the afternoon).

The second sentence would be correct if you were describing a typical action which happens to take place today. For example, imagine you go to the village every Friday and it is Friday today. Then you might say 'I go to the village today', describing what is a typical action for you.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jean999 on Sat, 01/07/2017 - 22:36

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Hello Shouldn't there be an apostrophe after the s in two weeks' time? the past continuous: It was September. Mary was starting school the next week. We were very busy. The shop was opening in two weeks time.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 02/07/2017 - 07:41

In reply to by jean999

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Hello jean999,

Thank you very much for pointing this out. You are quite correct and I have edited the page accordingly.

We try very hard to avoid typos like this but some inevitably get through and when they do it is good to know we can rely on our eagle-eyed users to spot them!

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aoll212 on Wed, 31/05/2017 - 22:36

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Very nice! I get it. Hope you don't mind coz I am asking again, like I really need to relate this to my previous question. Q: if I use ''have'' is it correct if don't add a time reference to it? On the flip side, I'm aware I have to include a time reference but I'm asking if it is still possible if I don't (ex. I have finished my homework) Thx.

Hello Aoll212,

In this example you have changed the verb form from past perfect to present perfect, so it is not the same meaning at all. With present perfect sentences the time reference is already known: it is the present. There is no need to provide a time reference. The past perfect describes a time before a past time, so needs a reference; the present perfect describes a time before the present, and so the time reference is already known. Therefore your example is fine and, indeed, providing a time reference other than a duration of unfinished time (with for or since) would be incorrect.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aoll212 on Wed, 31/05/2017 - 06:58

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Hello again, I want to ask about using past perfect 'had' Example: 'I had read' 1. Is this grammatically correct without adding time reference?

Hello Aoll212,

The sentence is correct grammatically speaking, but it needs a context to make sense. That could be provided by an explicit time reference or by the context of other information around this sentence. The past perfect always refers to a time before another event in the past, so we need to have another event for it to make sense.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by luveee13 on Tue, 16/05/2017 - 17:28

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Hello, i just wanted to know in a letter if i am tellinghappened in the the past like for example.. Five days ago, the patient complained a heache or has complained headache? But she is still experiencing headache at the time of writing a letter. I am confused. Pls help me.

Hello luveee13,

When we have a finished time reference ('give days ago') we do not use the present perfect. The compaint was in the past and is finished and so we use the past simple. If the action or event is not finished then the present perfect is used. For example, the patient's pain has not ended so you would say 'She has had headaches for five days' or 'The headaches have been hurting her for five days'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aoll212 on Thu, 11/05/2017 - 21:56

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Good day our online english tutors, This is a present perfect continuous tense, pls. help me again. 'Hello, I just wanna make sure if your the one who have been attending Sir x's class since then?' Is this grammatically correct? Thx

Hello Aoll212,

There are one or two problems with the sentence. The correct form would be:

Hello, I just want to check if you're the one who has been attending Mr. x's class since then?'

 

However, we would only use 'then' if the time has just been mentioned. More likely would be to give a time (e.g. '...since last week').

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thx, noted. I'm also just checking if I did it right using 'who' in the sentence and I am correct on that part. on the other hand, I am not sure about the exact time reference to use(either since+ a couple of months ago or early months this year or from the early period of the class, thus, I used 'since+then' without knowing the thorough meaning of it, oopsie my bad.) but I learnt about using 'since+then' from you guys hehe.

Submitted by Devesh Raj on Mon, 20/03/2017 - 04:06

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" Samantha hadn’t had time to explain her side of the story. " it looks strange to me.... why this sentence having hadn't and had both

Hello Devesh Raj,

This is an example of a past perfect form. The construction for the past perfect is:

had + past participle

For example: had gone, had looked, hadn't eaten.

In your example the main verb is 'have' and its past participle is 'had'. Therefore we have hadn't had.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Evachi on Mon, 20/02/2017 - 03:44

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Hello Team, I am confused about the proper tense for appraisal writing and hope that you would kindly give me some advice. My previous boss told me that present tense should be used for general description of appraisee's performance even if the appraisal period was in the past. However, my present boss considered that past tense should be used under all circumstances for past appraisal period. Allow me to provide some sentences in question: 1. "When she was asigned of ad hoc duties, she completed the tasks timely with good quality of output." While it happened during the appraisal period, can it be interpreted as a general description of the appraisee's performance (because the description is also true to her present performance) and hence present tense be used? 2. "Miss Chan is a bright officer. She has good knowledge about her work." Is present tense the correct tense be used for comment on appraisee in an appraisal report? Thanks a lot! Regards, Evachi

Hello Evachi,

I would say that if you are describing something which is finished - a completed time period - then past forms are appropriate. If you want to draw more general conclusions then present forms are fine. You can use both, of course:

She worked very well as part of the advertising strategies team, and copes well under stress.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Jarek_O on Mon, 13/02/2017 - 22:14

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Hi Team, In the 6th sentence from exercises: We ______ anything quite so extraordinary in our lives. Why "never saw" is marked as a wrong answer? The correct one "had never seen" seems to me a bit out of the context as I am not sure if this happens in the past or the present.

Hello Jarek_O,

Strictly speaking, you could use the past simple in this sentence. This kind of sentence, however, is usually used to tell the story of how you witnessed an extraordinary event. In this use, since you're referring to a past event from a past perspective, the past perfect is nearly always the tense you see or hear used in it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Vickyy Bhardwaj on Tue, 27/12/2016 - 03:31

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Which one is correct? I would have changed the plan , if I had known it. or, I would have changed the plan , if I knew it.

Hello Vickyy Bhardwaj,

Grammatically speaking, both of these are possible, depending on the context. If you say 'had known' then you are describing a situation in the past which was not true:

I would have changed the plan , if I had known it. [you did not know it and you did not change the plan]

If you say 'knew' then you are talking about a true situation in the past and speculating about possible outcomes. We do not tend to use this when talking about ourselves because we know the outcomes made (so speculation is generally not possible). However, when talking about other people it is possible. For example:

I heard he studied French at Oxford University.

If he studied French at Oxford then he would have met Sarah. She studied French there too. [we know he studied French; we are speculating about his meeting Sarah]

As you can see, the context is very important here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ali-k on Wed, 30/11/2016 - 14:58

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Hi, I don't know how much my question is exactly related to this topic however, I really hope to get an answer for it. "I have been watching a movie before I come here" is it correct? thank you