Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

Past Tense

Past Tense

The past tense is one of the three main verb forms in the English language, alongside the present tense and the future tense. This explanation will introduce the past tense, explain the different uses of the past tense, and provide plenty of examples.

What is the past tense?

The main functions of the past tense are: to express that an action/state of being happened in the past (e.g. Ava went to the farm), to talk about repeated and habitual actions/events in the past (e.g. we used to go to Wales all the time), to refer to the present (e.g. It's time I went to work), or to refer to the future (e.g. Imagine if we moved to Italy).

We can also use the past tense for wishes and hypotheses ( e.g. I wish I had a car, What if you fell?) or to be polite (e.g. I was wondering if you could send me the file).

Now we have a basic understanding of why we use the past tense, let's explore it in more detail. We will learn about the different types of past tense and look at plenty of examples along the way!

Examples of past tense

Here are some examples of the past tense in context:

  • I climbed up the huge mountain.
  • They went to the shop.
  • I watched TV all day.
  • She was working all day on Saturday.
  • They hadn't been to school for a while.
  • He was laughing loudly.
Past tense Image of man watching tv StudySmarterFig 1. I watched TV all day

Types of past tense

Let's explore the different types of the past tense a little further.

Each of the three main tenses (past, present, and future) is divided into four aspects. An aspect is a verb form concerned with time and indicates an action's completion, duration, or repetition. Aspects work alongside tenses to show the duration of an action within a particular tense.

The four aspects are: simple, continuous (sometimes called 'progressive'), perfect, and perfect continuous (progressive).

  • The simple aspect is used to express facts.

  • The continuous aspect shows that an action is ongoing and yet to be completed.

  • The perfect aspect is used for actions that started in the past but have some connection to the present.

  • The perfect continuous aspect is a combination of the continuous aspect and the perfect aspect. It is used to show that an action has/had/or will have been in progress since a specific point in time.

Now that we have a good idea of how tenses and aspects work together, let's look at the four different types of past tense.

Past simple tense

The past (simple) tense is the most common past form in the English language. It is used to talk about a completed action or event that started and ended in the past. In other words, the past simple tense describes a completed action in the past (e.g. He went to school yesterday).

The past simple tense can also be used to refer to a habitual or repeated action/event that occurred regularly (e.g. I used to go to London every Christmas).

You can form the past simple tense by using this formula:

Subject + past tense verb

For regular verbs, we form the past simple (Verb form 2) by adding the inflection -d or -ed to the verb's root. E.g. I dance → I danced

Take a look at these examples:

  • She often travelled to Spain.
  • We danced all night long.
  • I never wanted to see him again.

Notice how each of these examples contains a finished action/event that took place in the past (e.g. travelled, danced). We may also reference the specific point of time/frequency of the verb (e.g. often, all night long).

Things are a bit more tricky with irregular verbs such as 'run → ran' and 'be → was/were/been' which don't follow the same inflection rule. Unfortunately, we just have to memorise the spellings for these irregular verbs. Here are some more examples of irregular past tense verbs.

  • We saw the monkeys at the zoo.
  • They were angry.
  • I swam 6 miles in the race.
  • The rooster rose early every morning

Other ways to form the past simple tense include the following:

Negatives
Subject + did not (didn't) + verb root (the infinitive without 'to') E.g. I didn't wear my new jacket.
Interrogative
Did + subject + verb root (the infinitive without 'to') E.g. Did she see the monkeys?

Past continuous (progressive) tense

The past continuous tense (also known as the past progressive) is used to describe an ongoing action or event in the past.

The past continuous (progressive) tense is formed like this:

subject + was/were + verb root + -ing

  • I was talking to him the other day
  • The sun was shining
  • They were practising the guitar

The past continuous can be used to 'set the scene' for another event and is often used to describe an action that was interrupted by another action. Like this:

  • He was walking down the road when the dog jumped out.

  • We were all having lunch when it started to rain.

Both examples show an ongoing past action (walking/having lunch) interrupted by another past action (dog jumped out/started to rain).

Notice how the sentences contain the past form of 'to be' (was/were) as well as the verb ending with '-ing'. This helps us recognise that the past progressive (continuous) is being used.

Other ways to form the past progressive (continuous) include the following:

Negatives
Subject + was/were not + verb root + -ing E.g. Ella was not sleeping
Interrogative
Were/was + subject + verb root + -ing E.g. Was Chloe singing last night?

Past tense Image of girl in the sun StudySmarterFig 2. The sun was shining

Past perfect tense

The past perfect tense is used to talk about an action/event that was completed in the past, often before another action/event took place.

You can use this formula to make the past perfect tense:

Subject + had + past participle
  • I had slept all day.
  • Amy hadn't taken a day off for months.
  • He had just gone home.

Notice how each sentence uses the past participle verb form (or verb type 3). In the example sentences, the part participle verbs are slept, taken, and gone. We always use past participles when forming perfect tenses.

We often use the past perfect to talk about an action/event that was completed before a second action/event occurred. Take a look at these examples:

  • They had left by the time the bus arrived.

  • After Sarah had finished school, she went for dinner

Notice how each example includes two actions/events which are both in the past, one after the other.

Other ways of forming the past perfect include the following:

Negatives
Subject + had not + past participle E.g. Emma hadn't slept
Interrogative
Had + subject + past participle E.g. Had you studied?

Past perfect continuous (progressive) tense

The past perfect continuous (progressive) tense describes an action that started in the past and continued into another time in the past. A past perfect progressive sentence is formed by using the auxiliary verbs had and been together with the main verb + -ing (e.g.walking). For example, 'I had been walking'.

We can form the past perfect progressive (continuous) tense by using this formula:

subject + had been + verb root + -ing

Check out these examples:

  • Daniel had been cooking dinner all afternoon.
  • I had been reading a really interesting book.

Like the past perfect, the past perfect progressive can also be used to 'set the scene' for another past action.

  • We had been driving for an hour before the car broke down.
  • Faye had been cleaning the house when I came back.
  • I had been showing them a video before you arrived.

Other ways to form the past perfect continuous (progressive) tense include:

Negatives
Had not (hadn't) + been + verb root + -ing E.g. John had not been eating
Interrogative
Had + subject + been + verb root + -ing E.g. Had she been running?

Past tense revision sheet

TenseExplanationExamples
Past simpleThe past simple tense is used to talk about a completed action or event that started in the past and ended in the past.
  • We cycled to the beach.
  • Did you go outside?
  • I danced all night.
Past continuousPast continuous tense (also known as past progressive tense) is used to express that an action or event was ongoing in the past.
  • I was cooking all evening.
  • He wasn't smiling.
  • Was it raining last night?
Past PerfectThe past perfect tense expresses a completed action in the past, often before another action/event took place.
  • She had been ill all week
  • We had adopted a new puppy for Christmas
  • I had won the game
Past Perfect ContinuousThe past perfect continuous expresses that an action started in the past and continued into another time in the past.
  • I had been laughing all day.
  • She had been trying to fix her bike.
  • You hadn't been working hard.

Using the past tense to refer to the present or future

It may sound unlikely, but the past tense can be used to refer to the present or future in particular situations. Some examples of these situations include:

  • To express urgency - e.g. The train is here soon. It's time we left.

  • To talk about plans - e.g. I was thinking of booking a flight to Barbados for my birthday'. Here, the past continuous expresses uncertainty about plans (although it sounds like a good plan to us!).

  • To be polite - e.g. I was wondering if you could send me the documents or I was hoping that you'd come this weekend. Here, the past continuous sounds more polite than the simple present 'I hope you come this weekend' as it is less direct.

  • To express possibility/wishes/hypothesise - e.g. Suppose someone called me tomorrow, I wish I had a bigger TV or What if you missed the train?

Past Tense - Key takeaways

  • The past tense is one of the three main tenses in the English language.

  • There are four aspects of the past tense: past (simple), past progressive (continuous), past perfect, and past perfect progressive (continuous).

  • The main functions of the past tense are: to express that an action/state of being has happened in the past, to talk about repeated habitual actions/events in the past, to refer to the present tense, or to refer to the future tense.

  • To turn a regular verb into a past tense verb, we add the inflection '-d/-ed'

Frequently Asked Questions about Past Tense

The past tense is one of the three main verb forms in the English language. Its primary uses are to express that something has already happened, to talk about past habits, to discuss wishes and hypothetical situations, and to refer to the present and future.

The past progressive tense, also called the past continuous tense, is used to describe an ongoing activity/action in the past. E.g. I was talking to him yesterday.

The simple past tense is the most basic past tense form. It is used to talk about a completed action in the past.

The past tense uses verb inflections and auxiliary verbs to discuss actions/events that have a connection to the past. Some examples of past tense verbs are walked, ran, and cooked.

It is a tense that expresses an action that has happened already or describes a state that has already existed.

Final Past Tense Quiz

Question

What is another name for the past continuous tense?

Show answer

Answer

Past progressive tense.

Show question

Question

How many main past verb tenses are there?


Show answer

Answer

Four.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is past continuous tense?

  1. Had the pilot been drinking before the crash?

  2. What were you doing at 10 pm last night?

  3. What are we going to do?

Show answer

Answer

B.

Show question

Question

Which of the following could a writer use the past tense to show?

  1. A memory.

  2. A vision.

Show answer

Answer

A memory 

Show question

Question

Is this sentence written in the past tense: Later that day, we all had dinner.


Show answer

Answer

Yes.

Show question

Question

True or False: Past tense can be used in fiction texts.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between the past perfect tense and the perfect continuous past tense?


Show answer

Answer

The past perfect tense shows an action that was completed before another action, also in the past, occurred. The past perfect continuous tense describes an ongoing past action which continued to happen after another action, also in the past.

Show question

Question

What does past (simple) tense show?

Show answer

Answer

Simple past tense shows that an action has happened in the past.

Show question

Question

What does the past perfect tense show?

Show answer

Answer

A “past within a past”. It shows one action has already happened before another action happens that is still in the past.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is a past verb tense?

  1. Perfectly simple past tense.

  2. Perfect simple past tense.

  3. Perfect continuous past tense.

Show answer

Answer

C.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not a past tense verb?

  1. Cycled 

  2. Knitted

  3. Run

Show answer

Answer

C.

Show question

Question

True or False: Past tense is least commonly found in nonfiction texts.


Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Which past verb tense is least common in everyday language?


Show answer

Answer

Perfect continuous/progressive past tense.

Show question

Question

Which of these is not a past verb tense?

  1. Past continuing tense.

  2. Past progressive tense.

  3. Past (simple) tense.

Show answer

Answer

A.

Show question

Question

What is past tense used to show?

Show answer

Answer

That something has already happened.

Show question

Question

Identify the tense:

I had been waiting years for a man like him

Show answer

Answer

Past perfect continuous tense.

Show question

Question

Identify the tense:

I slept all day yesterday.

Show answer

Answer

Past simple tense.

Show question

Question

Identify the tense:

She was crying last night.

Show answer

Answer

Past continuous tense

Show question

Question

Identify the tense:

I had asked for the day off

Show answer

Answer

Past perfect tense

Show question

Question

True or false, the past tense can be used to refer to the present and the future?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Past Tense quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.