Ultimate Explanation: What Are The Past Tenses?
The past tenses don’t have to be difficult, In this article we explain in detail what are the past tenses and how you can use them. Here you will find information about the past simple, past continuous, past perfect and other past language points. So you will have no problem using them in your daily or future life.
Past Simple Tense
Subject + Past form of the verb (regular or irregular)
When is the past simple tense used?
Answer: The past simple is used to talk about actions and events which started and finished in the past.
Regular verbs: Generally speaking you can add -ed to most regular verbs in their simple form. For Example: ‘walk’ to ‘walked’
Irregular verbs: Are different and can be harder to work out for beginners. For Example: ‘go’ is ‘went’
Example: Where did you go yesterday?
Example: I went to the shop yesterday.
The time expression in this example is ‘yesterday’. Time expressions or as we like to call them ‘magic words’ are fantastic as they can you tell which tense it is. Some time expressions are used in multiple tenses and others are specific to one tense. We explain more about time expressions in this article: Why are time expressions and adverbs magic words?
Warning: Do not confuse the past simple with the present perfect.
You can see the differences in this article: What is the difference between the Past Simple and the Present Perfect?
Subject + was/were + ing-verb
When is the past continuous used?
Answer: The past continuous is used to talk about actions which started and continued from one time in the past to another time before ending. The action or event was ‘in progress’ or continuing at the time in the past. This tenses is common for describing longer actions as opposed to shorter actions like the past simple.
Example: I was driving to Berlin yesterday.
Magic words: ‘when’ used for actions/events which disturbed or happened around the same time the main action/event, ‘while’ used for actions/events which happened at the same time or over a longer period.
Example: I was driving to Berlin yesterday when my friend called.
Example: I was driving to Berlin yesterday while listening to the radio.
On the whole, we do not use verbs to describe states (stative verbs) in the past continuous like thoughts and feelings. We would use the past simple.
Example: I remembered him when I saw him. ✓
Don’t say: I was remembering him when I saw him. X
Past Perfect Simple Tenses
Subject + had + past participle
When is the past perfect tense used?
Answer: The past perfect tense is used to talk about more than one action or event that happened in the past in a sequence. In the example you can see we have two actions/events in the past.
Example: I had checked my emails before I arrived at work.
Event 1: Checked my emails Event 2: Arrived at work
Time expressions/magic words: before, after, as soon as, when
These are common adverbs that we use with perfect tenses: just, already, never
Past Perfect Continuous Tense
Subject + had + been + ing-verb
When is the past perfect continuous tense used?
Answer: The past perfect continuous tense is used in a similar way to the past perfect simple, when describing an order of events however it is used to focus on longer events or the duration of an event before the next event.
Example: I had been walking to work before Dan offered to take me. The person could have walked to work for a year.
Example: I had been living in Russia for 2 years when I decided to learn the language.
Other language points used in the past
Subject + could + verb
We use could to talk about general ability in the past.
Example: When I was younger I could swim fast.
Was/were able to
Subject + was/were able to + verb
We use ‘was’ or ‘were’ able to to talk about specific past abilities.
Example: I was able to get to the airport on time despite the traffic jams.
Subject + Managed to + verb
Use ‘managed to’ in a positive sentence to show that you were able to achieve something that was challenging.
Example: Last year, I managed to climb Mount Everest.
Subject + did not + manage to
In the negative sentence use ‘did not manage to’ to indicate that you were not successful or you did not attempt the challenge.
Example: Last year, I did not manage to climb Mount Everest. (The weather was too bad and I stopped half way)
Example: Last year, I did not manage to climb Mount Everest. ( I went to Cuba instead)
Subject + Had to + verb
Use ‘had to’ to describe past obligations. Things that you had to do.
Example: Last year we had to work overtime.
Subject + Used to + verb
Use ‘used to’ to describe regular actions/habits which you did in the past.
I used to go to Mexico every year. (But now we go to France every year).
Example: We can also use ‘used to’ to outline states in the past.
Example: He used to be taller.