PAST TENSE – know which Past Tense to use.

Past tense. A calendar from a past year.

The four forms of the Past Tense,
and how to use them.

We use the past tense in English:

  • to talk about the past;
  • to talk about imaginary things (hypotheses);
  • for making our words sound polite;

There are four past tense forms in English:

Past simple: I spoke
Past perfect: I had spoken
Past continuous: I was speaking
Past perfect continuous: I had been speaking



We use the Past Simple tense to say when something happened in the past. An action that was started and finished at a specific (definite) time. For example:

  • I completed the job an hour ago.
  • I went swimming yesterday.

FORM: We can use the Auxiliary verb ‘did’

  • “Where did you go on holiday last year?”
  • “They didn’t go to the match on Saturday.



If we want to talk about two actions that happened in the past, with one happening after the other one, we use the Past Simple tense for the first action and the Past Perfect tense for the second one. FORM: Use the Auxiliary verb ‘had’. For example:

  • When Mary arrived at the party, Paul had gone home.

“Arrived” is in the Past Simple tense. “Had gone” is in the Past Perfect tense.

We can also turn the sentence around. For example:

  • They had saved some money before they went to France.
  • She hadn’t finished the exam when the bell rang.



We use the past continuous for an action that was happening over a (continuous) period of time in the past. FORM: Use the Auxiliary verb ‘was / were’. For example:

  • He was speaking Greek yesterday (all day). (The “all day” is understood.)
  • We were reading all night, until the morning light.



The Past Perfect Continuous talks about a action which was happening (over a period of time) in the past and which was interrupted by another action, (also in the past). FORM: Use the Auxiliary verb ‘had been’. For example:

  • This morning I saw that it had been snowing during the night.
  • We had been there for 2 hours when Sarah finally arrived.
  • Had she been walking a long time before she got home?


Related Content:

British Council – English Grammar
English First – English Grammar, Past.
Woodward English – Grammar Rules

More about the Past Tense in Lessons A2.07, A2.09, B1.04, B1.08, B2.06 of the Kaycontinental Learn English Now course available below.


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