The Past Tenses
As we can understand from the name, a past tense verb is used to indicate an action, event or condition that has happened in the past. Each tense has four aspects that talks about the completion of the event or action and based on that, we have four types of past tense verbs:
- Simple Past Tense
- Past Continuous Tense
- Past Perfect Tense
- Past Perfect Continuous Tense.
Simple Past/ Past Simple
The simple past (also called past simple, past indefinite or preterite) is a verb tense which is used to show that a completed action took place at a specific time in the past. The simple past is also frequently used to talk about past habits and generalizations. Read on for detailed descriptions, examples, and simple past exercises.
You always use the simple past when you say when something happened, so it is associated with certain past time expressions
- frequency: often, sometimes, always
I sometimes walked home at lunchtime.
I often brought my lunch to school.
- a definite point in time: last week, when I was a child, yesterday, six weeks ago
We saw a good film last week.
Yesterday, I arrived in Geneva.
She finished her work atseven o’clock
I went to the theatre last night
- an indefinite point in time: the other day, ages ago, a long time ago
People lived in caves a long time ago.
She played the piano when she was a child.
Note: the word ago is a useful way of expressing the distance into the past. It is placed after the period of time: a week ago, three years ago, a minute ago.
Simple Past Forms
The simple past is formed using the verb + ed. In addition, there are many verbs with irregular past forms. Questions are made with did and negative forms are made with did not.
- Statement: You called Debbie.
- Question: Did you call Debbie?
- Negative: You did not call Debbie.
Simple Past Uses
USE 1 Completed Action in the Past
Use the simple past to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past. Sometimes, the speaker may not actually mention the specific time, but they do have one specific time in mind.
- I saw a movie yesterday.
- I didn’t see a play yesterday.
- Last year, I traveled to Japan.
- Last year, I didn’t travel to Korea.
- Did you have dinner last night?
- She washed her car.
- He didn’t wash his car.
USE 2 A Series of Completed Actions
We use the simple past to list a series of completed actions in the past. These actions happen 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on.
- I finished work, walked to the beach, and found a nice place to swim.
- He arrived from the airport at 8:00, checked into the hotel at 9:00, and met the others at 10:00.
- Did you add flour, pour in the milk, and then add the eggs?
USE 3 Duration in the Past
The simple past can be used with a duration which starts and stops in the past. A duration is a longer action often indicated by expressions such as: for two years, for five minutes, all day, all year, etc.
- I lived in Brazil for two years.
- Shauna studied Japanese for five years.
- They sat at the beach all day.
- They did not stay at the party the entire time.
- We talked on the phone for thirty minutes.
- A: How long did you wait for them?
B: We waited for one hour.
USE 4 Habits in the Past
The simple past can also be used to describe a habit which stopped in the past. It can have the same meaning as “used to.” To make it clear that we are talking about a habit, we often add expressions such as: always, often, usually, never, when I was a child, when I was younger, etc.
- I studied French when I was a child.
- He played the violin.
- He didn’t play the piano.
- Did you play a musical instrument when you were a kid?
- She worked at the movie theater after school.
- They never went to school, they always skipped class.
USE 5 Past Facts or Generalizations
The simple past can also be used to describe past facts or generalizations which are no longer true. As in USE 4 above, this use of the simple past is quite similar to the expression “used to.”
- She was shy as a child, but now she is very outgoing.
- He didn’t like tomatoes before.
- Did you live in Texas when you were a kid?
- People paid much more to make cell phone calls in the past.
The Past Continuous Tense
The past continuous tense, also known as the past progressive tense, refers to a continuing action or state that was happening at some point in the past. The past continuous tense is formed by combining the past tense of to be (i.e., was/were) with the verb’s present participle (-ing word).
There are many situations in which this verb tense might be used in a sentence. For example, it is often used to describe conditions that existed in the past.
It can also be used to describe something that was happening continuously in the past when another action interrupted it.
The past continuous can shed light on what was happening at a precise time in the past.
It can also refer to a habitual action in the past.
One final caution: Though the irregularities are few, not every verb is suited to describing a continuous action. Certain verbs can’t be used in the past continuous tense. One common example is the verb to arrive.
Unlike the past continuous and past perfect tenses, past perfect continuous tense is not used to indicate state, state of mind or feelings. Examples:
- I had been studying.
- It had been raining hard for several hours and the streets got flooded.
- If it had not been raining, we would have gone to the park.
Formulating the Past Perfect Continuous Tense
This tense is formed with the past perfect tense of the verb ‘to be’, which is ‘had been’ and the present participle of the verb i.e ‘-ing’.
The Past Perfect Tense
The past perfect refers to a time earlier than before now. It is used to make it clear that one event happened before another in the past. It does not matter which event is mentioned first – the tense makes it clear which one happened first.
Past Perfect Forms
The Past Perfect tense in English is composed of two parts: the past tense of the verb to have (had) + the past participle of the main verb.
The past perfect is formed using had + past participle. Questions are indicated by inverting the subject and had. Negatives are made with not.
- Statement: You had studied English before you moved to New York.
- Question: Had you studied English before you moved to New York?
- Negative: You had not studied English before you moved to New York.
Past Perfect Uses
USE 1 Completed Action Before Something in the Past
The past perfect expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past.
- I had never seen such a beautiful beach before I went to Kauai.
- I did not have any money because I had lost my wallet.
- Tony knew Istanbul so well because he had visited the city several times.
- Had Susan ever studied Thai before she moved to Thailand?
- She only understood the movie because she had read the book.
- Kristine had never been to an opera before last night.
- We were not able to get a hotel room because we had not booked in advance.
- A: Had you ever visited the U.S. before your trip in 2006?
B: Yes, I had been to the U.S. once before.
Use of Just
‘Just’ is used with the past perfect to refer to an event that was only a short time earlier than before now, e.g.
- The train had just left when I arrived at the station.
- She had just left the room when the police arrived.
- I had just put the washing out when it started to rain.