Talking about the past

Learn about the different verb forms you can use to talk about the past, and do the exercises to practise using them.

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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Past simple, used to and would 2

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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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Past simple and past continuous 2

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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.

Past simple, continuous and perfect 1

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Past simple, continuous and perfect 2

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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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Present perfect and past simple 2

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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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Hello JHRoss,

Both the simple and continuous forms are possible here and there is little difference in meaning. The continuous form emphasises the ongoing duration of the action, while the simple form emphasises the action as a whole. We would tend to use the simple form if we are interested in the result of the action or the achievement it represents, or if the action is complete, while the continuous would usually be used when we want to focus on the duration of the activity, the effort it entails or if the activity is not finished.

You can read more about the present perfect simple and continuous on this page.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by toandue on Sun, 18/03/2018 - 17:03

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Hello The LearnEnglish Team, I've once seen the following sentence. ''At school I disliked the maths teacher because he was always picking/always picked on me." As my understanding, the past continuous is used here to express annoyance and the past simple describes an action happened in the past. Is this possible to use "used to" or "would" in this case, since the action is a repeated action in the past? Thank you in advanced, Toan

Hello toandue,

It's certainly grammatically possible to use both 'would' and 'used to + infinitive' here. The past continuous or past simple form sounds a little more natural to me, particularly if you use 'always' in the sentence. I suppose this is because it would be a little redundant with 'would' or 'used to', though not grammatically incorrect. 

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Elton Cesar da Silva on Mon, 05/03/2018 - 13:01

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Hello LearnEnglish Team, What's the difference between "used to" and "would" when talking about past habits? Thanks, Elton

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".
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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?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 25/05/2018 - 06:53

In reply to by learning

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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!
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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
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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