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Past Tense

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English

The past tense is one of the three main verb forms in the English language, alongside the present tense and the future tense.

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 ( ' Ava went to the farm ') , to talk about habitual actions / events in the past that were repeated or occurred regularly (' we used to go to Wales all the time ') , to refer to the present ( ' I wish I had a dog ') or to refer to the future ( ' Imagine if we moved to Italy ').

The past tense has other uses such as talking about hypotheses / imagining something (' What if you fell ? ' ) or to be polite (' I was wondering if you could send me the file ').

Let's explore the past tense in more detail. We will also 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 had watched the film.
  • She was working all day on Saturday.
  • They hadn't been to school for a while.
  • He was laughing loudly.

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 the completion , duration , or repetition of an action.

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

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.

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

You can form the past simple 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 root of the verb eg 'I dance' → 'I danced ' .

Take a look at these examples:

  • She often traveled 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 (' traveled ', 'danced ' ) . We may also reference the specific point of time / frequency of the verb ( '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. 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') eg. I didn't wear my new jacket eg. She did not like the zoo
Interrogative
Did + subject + verb root (the infinitive without 'to') eg. Did you go? eg. Did she see the monkeys?

Past progressive (continuous) tense

The past progressive tense (also known as the past continuous) 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 all day
  • Jeff was 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 -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 eg. Ella was not sleeping eg. We weren't enjoying the music
Interrogative
Were / was + subject + verb root + -ing eg. Was Chloe singing last night? eg. What is it (not) raining?

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 eg. Emma hadn't slept eg. We hadn't understood the test
Interrogative
Had + subject + past participle eg. Had you studied? eg. Had she (not) come home?

Past perfect progressive (continuous) tense

The past perfect progressive (continuous) 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 eg '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 progressive (continuous) tense include:

Negatives
Had not (hadn't) + been + verb root + -ing eg. John had not been eating eg. The dog hadn't been barking
Interrogative
Had + subject + been + verb root + -ing eg. Had she been running? eg. Had they not been working all day?

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 . eg We cycled to the beach eg Did you go outside? eg I danced all night
Past continuousPast continuous tense (also known as past progressive tense) is used to express that an action or event is ongoing in the past. eg I was cooking all evening e.g. He wasn't happy when he arrived. eg Was it raining last night?
Past PerfectThe past perfect tense expresses a completed action in the past that occurs before another action / event happened in the past . eg She had been ill all week e.g. We had adopted a new puppy for Christmas e.g. 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.eg I had been laughing all day e.g. She had been trying to fix her bike e.g. You hadn't been working hard

Uses of past tense

Literature

The past tense is the most commonly used tense in literature.

In fiction, writers use the past tense to show events that have already happened, even if the characters feel like it's happening in the present. A writer might also use the past tense in a flashback, as the tense places the events in the past. In nonfiction, writers are able to state facts and describe events that have already happened in the past.

Referring to the present or future

The past tense can be used to refer to the present or future in particular situations including:

  • To express urgency eg. 'The train is here soon. It's time we left '.
  • To talk about plans eg. 'I was thinking of booking a flight to Barbados for my birthday' . Here, the past continuous expresses uncertainty about plans (although it does sound like a good plan to us!).
  • To be polite eg. '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. The past simple can be used in a similar way eg. 'Did you want to come the theater?'.
  • To express possibility / wishes / hypothesise - eg. '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 habitual actions / events in the past that were repeated or occurred regularly , to refer to the present tense, or to refer to the future tense.

  • The past tense is commonly used in literature and can also be used in certain situations to refer to the present and future tense.

Past Tense

Past tense tells us that something has already happened. 

The past progressive tense is used to describe an activity/action that happened in the past but is ongoing.

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

The past tense uses verbs to show that an action has already happened. 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 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 past tense to show?

  1. A memory.

  2. A vision.

Show answer

Answer

A. 

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.


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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

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


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Answer

Perfect continuous past tense includes the time of the action, perfect past tense does not.

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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

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