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Linguapress English Grammar

Past tenses in English

This page looks at the different ways of expressing past time in English.

The currently popular view of modern linguistics argues that there is only one past tense in English, the "past".  This can be very confusing for students, whether they are native speakers or learners of English.
   For this reason, the Linguapress English grammar prefers to consider the idea of "tense" from  the historic and pragmatic viewpoint,  that there are three past tenses in English  (footnote) - one simple tense and two compound tenses. .
  The three past tenses of English all have simple and progressive forms, as illustrated below. These tenses can be used in the active, as in the examples on this page, or the passive.

Index : The simple past The present perfect The past perfect
How much do you already know? Click  for a short test on past tenses
English uses three principal forms of the past, the Simple Past (or preterite), the Present Perfect (or compound past), and the Past perfect, sometimes called the Pluperfect.
All of these forms can also be used with a progressive aspect.

Forms of past tenses : sample verb make
1. Simple active forms
I you he she it one we you they
Simple past made
Present perfect have made has made have made
Past perfect had made
2. Progressive active forms
I you he she it one we you they
Simple past was making were making
Present perfect have been making has been making have been making
Past perfect had been making
For passive forms, see Forms of the passive

Look at English grammar with Linguapress.  Simple rules, clear examples.

1. The simple past.

This is used to relate past events in a historic context. Often, you will know that it must be used, because the sentence also contains an adverb (or adverb phrase) of time, such as yesterday, or a date or time.

1) Queen Victoria died in 1901.
2) The Titanic sank when it hit an iceberg.
3) I told you not to drink too much
4) Next, they went and cooked dinner.

1.1. Simple past - progressive or continuous forms:

Here are some examples with a progressive or continuous form too: both of the events in each sentence are "historic", but one took place while another longer-lasting situation was true:

5) John Lennon died while he was living in New York.
6) The students shouted as the President was speaking.

1.2. Used to and would - the past of finished situation or finished habit

To express a finished habit, or terminated situation or action, there are two additional possible structures, one with used to, the other with would.  To express a terminated situation, only the structure with used to can be used. Terminated situation can also be expressed using the simple past often reinforced by an adverb of duration or of time.
   1) I used to go to Brighton when I was a child. But I don't any longer.
   2) He would call her every day when she was younger, but he doesn't now
   3) This streeet used to be very quiet; but nowadays it's full of traffic.
   4)  This street was once very quiet, but nowadays it's full of traffic.
For more on this, see: Problem words - Used to.

2. The Present Perfect (or compound past)

In British English, the present perfect (which Samuel Johnson called, perhaps more appropriately, the compound preterite)  is used to situate past events, or the consequences of past events, in relation to the present situation (that's why linguists call it the "present" perfect). Americans do not always use the present perfect in this situation.

1. I have ordered a new refrigerator, darling!
    (i.e., the speaker means "A new refrigerator is coming and will be here soon").
2. I've eaten too much!
     (i.e. the speaker implies: "At this moment now, I do not feel very well; I have a funny feeling in my stomach!)
3.  Manchester United have won the Cup
      (i.e. Manchester United are now, at this moment , football champions).

You do not usually find adverbs of time used with verbs in the present perfect, but there are some exceptions:
1. already:
2. adverbs of frequency:
3. adverbs or adverb phrases of duration related to the present:
1. Come on, we've already started eating !
2. I've often seen people driving too fast down that road.
3. I've lived in London for ten years.
  (Contrast with: I lived in London for ten years (but I don't live there now) - a historic statement)
4. I've lived in London since 1985. 
5. I've been living in London since 1985.    (Both of these forms are acceptable)
6. Up to now, I've always refused to eat fish.

2.1. Present-perfect progressive or present-perfect continuous:

These progressive forms are used when we want to imply that an event / events in the past have been continuing until the present point in time, or have taken place over a period of time in the past

I've been waiting for you since three o'clock.
The doctor has been seeing patients for most of the afternoon.
( Cross reference: since and for)

3. The past perfect or pluperfect.

The past perfect or pluperfect, as in He had seen,  is normally only used in English when one past event (either a specific action, or a contuous condition) has to be situated in a more distant past than another past event.  In some situations, the progressive or continuous form is necessary.
  I had just put the phone down, when the doorbell rang.
  The man had been drinking before the accident happened.
  He had worked in the company for five years before he got promotion.
There are some other uses too, but they are less common. Note, for example, the use of the past perfect (and inversion) after hardly :
Hardly had I put the phone down, than the phone rang.

Comparative grammar:  Using past tenses in French:

Have you already done the test ? Click  for a short test on past tenses

For an overview of this linguistic argument, see The Present perfect : present tense or past tense ?

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Cette page en français: ►
Les temps du passé en anglais

► Click for  Full grammar index
Selected main grammar pages
Verbs: the present tense
Verbs : the future
Past tenses
Phrasal & prepositional verbs
Gerunds, participles and -ing forms
The infinitive
Irregular verb tables
Nouns, pronouns, adjectives
Noun phrases
Adjective order in English
The possessive
Sentences & clauses
Relative clauses in English
Conditional clauses in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Word stress in English
The short story of English
More resources
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Reading resources: intermediate
Crosswords and word games

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