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The Simple Guide to English Past Tenses: A Summary of the Uses of Each Tense

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 0

The English Tense system can be a tricky topic for both teachers and students, but by gradually learning each tense, its formation and its use it can prove to be less daunting than what it seems. The trick is to keep things simple and do one at a time. Only practice and experience will help the student to remember the various uses of each tense. The following is a summary of the usual uses of each English Past Tense:

Past simple tense

- Referring to past actions when the time that they took place is given e.g.

I went to the Zoo yesterday; She walked to the shop at six 'o clock

- Asking about the time that an event took place or about a specific event or action e.g.

When did you buy your car?; Did you go to the movies yesterday?

- Referring to an action that took place at a specific time, but the time is not mentioned e.g.

He arrived later than expected; I bought this book months ago

Past continuous tense

- Referring to actions that have been interrupted or were being performed at the same time as another action e.g.

While I was washing my car, it started to rain; He was cleaning the kitchen while she got started on the bathroom.

- Referring to gradual developments that took place in the past e.g.

The fog was getting thicker with each passing minute; Times were getting more and more difficult

- Referring to actions that happened before the time being mentioned (and most likely continued after) e.g.

Yesterday afternoon, he was walking down the street; They were still dancing at midnight

- Describing events in stories e.g.

There was lots of dancing and partying on the cruise; As we got there the sun was setting and some of the participants were already leaving

Past perfect tense

- Referring to past actions seen from the viewpoint of more recent past actions e.g.

I had to buy a new ticket, the other one had expired; They went home early, the concert had ended earlier than expected

- Referring to a past action that came to an end, with a new action being performed afterwards (usually as a result of the completed action) e.g.

After he had lifted the boom, I drove through; When I had left the building, I knew I was forgetting something

Past perfect continuous tense

The past perfect continuous tense is used for:

- Referring to a past event that had been taking place for a period of time leading up to a more recent past event or moment e.g.

I had been waiting for two hours when he arrived; Before starting his homework he had been playing videogames for three hours

See Also

A summary of how to form each past tense

A summary of the uses of each present tense

A summary of the uses of each future tense


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