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Past tenses in English 

Essential ENGLISH GRAMMAR - Verbs.

Expressing past time in English

This page looks at the different ways of expressing past time in English. The three past tenses of English all have simple and progressive forms, as illustrated below. They can also be formed in the active, as in the examples on this page, or the passive

Index : The simple past The present perfect The past perfect
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English uses three forms of the past, the Simple Past (or preterite), the Present Perfect, and the past perfect, sometimes called the pluperfect.
All of these forms can also be used in a progressive form .

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 the 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, there are two 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. These structures only exist in the active voice.  
   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.

2. The Present Perfect

In British English, this is used to situate past events, or the consequences of past events, in relation to the present situation. (that's why we 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)
I've lived in London since 1985. 
I've been living in London since 1985.    (Both of these forms are acceptable)
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

    4) I've been waiting for you since three o'clock.
    5) 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:

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