Brush Up On Your Tenses – The Past

It’s been a while since I mentioned writing some grammar articles on the English tenses, but I’m finally back into (some sort of) a routine. Today, I’ll be discussing the past tense. If you’d like to read up on the introduction again before diving into this one, you can find it here.

The Past Tense

The past tense is used when we write about what happened before now, what happened right up until now, and what happened right up until now and is still happening.

The past tense can be divided into:

  • the simple past
  • the  past continuous
  • the past perfect
  • the past perfect continuous

Simple Past

Use when:

  • an action has happened once in the past
  • an action happened repeatedly in the past
  • an action was true for some time in the past
  • the word ‘ago’ is used in the sentence.

The action could have happened once, never, or several times, but both the beginning and the end of the action(s) lie in the past.

Form: verb root + -ed

Example: I worked all night to finish the chapter.

Example: He attended several workshops on writing.

Example: We lived there for years.

Example: It was a long time ago when she kissed him for the first time.

Signal or Key words:

Often Always Sometimes
Last (time frame; day, week, etc.) When Yesterday
(period of time) ago The other day In (year)

Past Continuous / Progressive

Use when:

  • an action was happening before, during, and after another action or specific time in the past
  • an action is interrupted by another action
  • an action was happening for a while in the past
  • an action happened repeatedly in the past
  • an action was evolving/growing in the past
  • you want to indicate a change of mind in the past
  • two actions happened at the same time in the past
  • (you are wondering about something)

When you are wondering about something, you use the past continuous, but it is not a true time on the time line.

Form: was/were + verb root + -ing

Example: He was lying in the grass when he had an epiphany.

Example: I was writing a paranormal novel when I was asked to write an article on grammar.

Example: She was working on that book for ages.

Example: He was reading to us every night.

Example: Their grasp of the English language was improving.

Example: We were thinking about entering a writers’ competition, but we don’t think we’re good enough.

Example: I was writing while he was making dinner.

Example: (I was wondering if you could help me with my grammar.)

Signal or Key words:

While When

Past Perfect

Use when:

  • an action happened before another action or specific time in the past
  • an action happened before and up until another action in the past (example: live, work, teach, study)
  • using reported speech
  • (using if)

It is possible to use the simple past instead of the past perfect if ‘before’ or ‘after’ is used in the sentence to indicate the time the action happened.

You can’t use the past perfect if there is no specific time indication.

Form: had + past participle (= verb root + ed)

Example: She had always walked to work until she had the accident.

 Example: He had lived in a student flat for years until he got his first job.

 Example: I had thought her to be helpful before, but she wasn’t.

 Example: (If he had worked harder, he would have finished his novel by now.)

Signal or Key words:

When After Before
By the time Already Just
Never Not yet Until … (in the past)

Past Perfect Continuous / Progressive

Use when:

  • an action began at a certain time in the past and continued up until another specific time in the past
  • showing cause of an action (using ‘because’)
  • using reported speech
  • (using if)

Form: had been + present participle

Example: I had been buying books in the book store when I discovered online stores.

Example: She had been working all night because she didn’t work enough hours before.

Example: I had been reading my book before I looked up to see him standing there.

Example: (If he had been paying attention, he would have gotten there faster.)

Signal or Key words:

For Since

Next week, I’ll be discussing the present tense.

Tenses_Graph

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