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The Simple Guide to English Past Tenses: A Summary of How to Form Each Tense

By Edited Jul 11, 2015 0 0

The English tense system can strike fear into the hearts of students and teachers alike – but by keeping things simple it can be learnt (or taught) much more easily than you might think. The first thing to remember is that a thorough knowledge of verbs and participles will be needed (and parts of speech in general), after this you will find that each tense tends to follow the same patterns. If one tense is learnt (preferably beginning with the present tense), it will be much easier to learn the rest. Following is a summary of how to form each of the past tenses:

Past simple tense

Note: The past simple form of the verb is usually created by adding "d" or "ed" to the base form of a verb, but there are many irregular verbs that have no rules as to how they are formed. Experience is required to learn these – a list of irregular verbs can be found in most good English dictionaries.

-Affirmative: Subject + Past simple form of verb e.g.

I played tennis; They scored three times; It ran away

-Negative: Subject + Did not (or Didn't) + Base form of verb e.g.

I did not play tennis; They did not score three times; It didn't run away

- Question: Did + subject + base form of verb e.g.

Did I play tennis?; Did they score three times?; Did it run away?

Past continuous tense

Note: The auxiliary verb "be" has two past forms: was (used with units) and were (used with groups). The present participle is the "ing" form of a verb.

-Affirmative: Subject + auxiliary verb "be" + present participle

He was eating melons; They were playing bingo

-Negative: Subject + auxiliary verb "be" + not + present participle

He was not eating melons; They were not playing bingo

- Question: Auxiliary verb "be" + subject + present participle

Was he eating melons?; Were they playing bingo?

Past perfect tense

Note: The auxiliary verb "have" has only one past forms: had. The past participle is often created by adding "d" or "ed" to the base form of a verb. There are however many irregular verbs that do not have rules for their past participle formation – these have to be learned through experience. A list of irregular verbs can be found in most good English dictionaries.

-Affirmative: Subject + auxiliary verb "have"+ past participle

I had eaten an hour earlier; They had run the entire distance; It had approached from the front

-Negative: Subject + auxiliary verb "have" + not + past participle

I had not eaten an hour earlier; They had not run the entire distance; It had not approached from the front

- Question: Auxiliary verb "have" + subject + past participle

Had I eaten an hour earlier?; Had they run the entire distance?; Had it approached from the front?

Past perfect continuous tense

Note: The auxiliary verb "have" has only one past forms: had. The present participle is the "ing" form of a verb.

-Affirmative: Subject + auxiliary verb "have"+ been + present participle

He had been expecting it to be larger; She had been watching him the entire morning

-Negative: Subject + auxiliary verb "have" + not + been + present participle

He had not been expecting it to be larger; She had not been watching him the entire morning

- Question: Auxiliary verb "have" + subject + been + present participle

Had he been expecting it to be larger?; Had she been watching him the entire time?

See Also:

A Summary of the uses of each past tense

A Summary of how to form each present tense

A summary of how to form each future tense

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