Talking about the past

These notes cover the following tenses in English grammar:

  • Past simple
  • Present Perfect Tenses
  • Past Continuous
  • Past Perfect Simple

Past Simple


The regular form is verb +ed although of course there are many irregular verbs in English; for example, think/thought; come/came; drive/drove; spin/spun; write/wrote.

We need to introduce the auxiliary verb did into Past Simple negative sentences and questions, so he arrived becomes he did not arrive and did he arrive?

Past Simple
Iyouwetheyhesheitdid not (didn’t)looked

There is one exception to this – the verb be. The following chart shows the positive and negative forms of this verb in the past. Unlike all other Past Simple verbs, questions are made simply by inverting the subject and the was/were, e.g. she was late becomes was she late?

Past Simple of be
Ihesheitwaswas not (wasn’t)
youwetheywerewere not (weren’t)

The Past Simple is one of the tenses that we use to talk about events, states or actions that have been completed at some point in the past. To emphasise this completion at a time before the present we often add expressions such as in 1980, in the last century, many years ago, yesterday, when I was younger, but these expressions are not of course obligatory.

The Past Simple is also preferred when we want to give more precise detail concerning an event. This is something that we often hear in news broadcasts where the speaker begins by using the Present Perfect to indicate that the event happened very recently and then switch to the Past Simple to give a more detailed account of the event. For example:

The north coast of France has been swept by violent storms. Trees were uprooted, houses were damaged and cars were blown off the roads. There was, however, no loss of life.

This demonstrates quite clearly the main use of the Past Simple as a tense of narration which is used to move a story forward and to pinpoint its main events and action. The other past tenses are normally reserved for setting the scene or giving background information against which the Past Simple highlights the more important elements of the narrative. Here’s an example which should illustrate the point:

I’d been out shopping all day and it had just started snowing quite heavily when I decided to head back home. By the time I’d got to the car it was snowing even faster. I got in and set off along the High Street. I was driving really carefully, but suddenly some idiot pulled out in front of me. I braked hard. But there was no way I could’ve missed him. I ran straight into the side of his car. The guy jumped out and started shouting at me.

The Past Perfect tenses and Past Continuous are used merely as a backdrop to the more exciting action which is in the Past Simple. However, you need to note that this tense is not only used for single, momentary actions like those in the story above. It is also used to describe events that occurred over longer periods of time and actions which were repeated over an extended period, but are now ended. So,

  • During the 1930s he made several attempts to climb Everest. (repeated)
  • Our family lived in this house for over 30 years. (extended period)
  • That’s the boy that hit me! (single action, but compare with…)
  • The old man hit the horse until it collapsed (clearly repeated action)

As we move on to the next past tense, you will need to keep in mind the fact that the Past Simple refers only to actions, states and events that were wholly completed at some time in the past. This is important as we will be examining the differences between this tense and the Present Perfect tenses in the next section.

Present Perfect Tenses

We have already met the Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous during our discussion of the tenses that we can use to talk about the present. We noted that these tenses are used to refer to actions which began in the past and are still true now and that time expressions with for and since often accompany them.

  • I have lived here for 25 years.
  • I have been working in this factory since I was a boy.

Let’s begin with the Present Perfect Simple. When referring to the past, we use this tense to talk about completed events, actions and states in the past which occurred during a time period which is not yet finished. Often we use time expressions to indicate the time period we are interested in has not yet finished. This sounds rather complicated so let’s look at a couple of examples.

  • I’ve had four cups of coffee today.
  • Anne’s been off work three times this year already.
  • I’ve read two books this week.

In each example the implication is that today, this year and this week have not yet finished and that there is still time for these events to happen again. Sometimes there is no time expression, but it is implied:

  • I’ve never been to Australia. (the listener will understand that the speaker’s life is the implied time period)
  • Note the difference between these two sentences.
  • I have never met my uncle (Present Perfect)
  • I never met my uncle (Past Simple)

Both sentences indicate that a meeting between my uncle and myself has not happened at any time in the past. However, because the Present Perfect refers to an unfinished time period, most native speakers of English would say that there is still a possibility for me to meet my uncle. In contrast to this, the second sentence indicates that, for example, a meeting is now out of the question because my uncle died before I had a chance to meet him.

You will find grammar books and English teaching course books that give short lists of words and expressions that are used with one tense or the other, but these should really only be treated as rule-of-thumb approximations since you may find that these rules are often broken by native speakers of English.

Both the Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous are used to refer to completed events, but there are often subtle differences that we need to be aware of:

  • I’ve painted the lounge.
  • I’ve been painting the lounge.

We understand that the actions in both of the sentences have stopped, but in the first example we know that the painting itself has finished, whereas in the second, the lounge may not yet be ready. So a major difference here is that the continuous form may be used to show that an action has recently stopped but may not yet be completed. Also, the action usually took place over an extended period of time.

Both tenses can also be used to denote actions which happened repeatedly, but we would have a preference for the continuous form in this case, e.g.

  • I’ve tried to get in touch with you.
  • I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.

The use of the second sentence would seem to indicate that the speaker has tried on many separate occasions to get in touch, while the first may or may not show this.

Past Continuous


Perhaps unsurprisingly the form of the Past Continuous closely resembles the Present Continuous except that the verb be (am, is, are depending on the subject) is used in its past tense form. So, in place of am and is we use was and instead of are we use were. The main verb is still the present participle –ing form. The full tense looks like this:

Past Continuous (Progressive)
Ihesheitwaswas not (wasn’t)looking
youwetheywerewere not (weren’t)

The Past Continuous is used to describe an action that was happening before a particular point in the past and was still in progress at that point. The action may or may not have continued after that point.

  • He was still talking at 4:00. (He very probably continued talking past that time).
  • I was walking down the street when I saw an old friend from school. (It is not clear at this point whether I stopped to talk to my friend or whether I carried on without stopping).

The second sentence is an example of this tense’s most common use. As we saw above in the discussion on the Past Simple, the Past Continuous is often used to set the scene or background to a narrative and the Past Simple action then interrupts this situation. We can also use this tense with time expressions such as the whole…, every day, all day, every minute of… to describe events that extend over long periods of time.

  • We were walking the whole day yesterday.

used to / would


The forms for both of these auxiliaries are used to talk about the past. They are quite straightforward since neither of them changes for the subject and both are followed by the simple verb form, as you can see in the chart.

used to/would
Iyouhesheitwetheyused todid not use to (didn’t use to)wouldlook

Both of these can be used as alternatives to the usual past tense to describe habits and to denote actions which took place over a period of time (not usually given in the same sentence) and which have since ceased to happen.

  • I used to smoke 40 cigarettes a day.
  • We would jump into the car and head for the sea.

As you can see from the examples, both indicate repeated action over an extended period and also distance from the time of speaking. It would be odd to continue using these forms throughout the rest of the narrative so speakers will often switch back and forth between used to, would and the Past Simple.

While both used to and would can be used to describe repeated actions in the past, only used to can be used for past states which occurred over a long stretch of time. For example, try replacing used to in the following sentences and see how you feel about the results.

  • I used to be lonely when I first moved here.
  • The whole family used to belong to the local tennis club.
  • I used to know the roads around here really well.

You should have rejected the sentences with would as not being acceptable English. However, look at the next set of sentences which contain stative verbs and decide how you feel.

  • He wouldn’t realise what had happened until someone pointed it out to him.
  • I would often feel guilty about not taking the dog for a walk.
  • She would be angry whenever I didn’t finish my homework.

In these examples the states did not occur over a long period of time, but were rather temporary, single actions repeated at various times in the past. In each case used to can, of course, be substituted.

was going to / were going to


This tense is formed by using was or were (depending on the subject) plus going to followed by the simple verb.

was/were going to
Ihesheitwas going towas not (wasn’t) going tolook
youwetheywere going towere not (weren’t) going to

We use this tense to describe a past intention that never actually occurred. We often find this form when someone is trying to give an excuse for not having done something that was expected of them or when someone feels that they have let another person down. The clause containing was/were going to is frequently followed immediately by but.

  • We were going to come last week, but the weather was so awful.
  • She was going to bring her new boyfriend along (but… is understood)
  • My parents were going to go on holiday this year, but they didn’t have enough money.

Past Perfect Simple


The Past Perfect Simple is made by adding the past participle (usually the verb form ending in –ed, but there are irregular verbs) to had, which does not change according its subject.

Past Perfect Simple
Iyouhesheitwetheyhadhad not (hadn’t)looked

The Past Perfect can only be used to refer to something that happened and finished before another point in the past. You will never see this tense alongside any tense that refers to the present time. More often than not, this tense will be used in a clause that is connected to another clause containing the Past Simple – the words that connect these clauses are called conjunctions; some examples are: because, that, when, as soon as, so, after, before and so forth.