about the past
four main tenses to talk specifically about the past are:
SIMPLE PAST (I looked)
PAST PROGRESSIVE (I was looking)
PAST PERFECT (I had worked)
PAST PERFECT PROGRESSIVE (I had been working)
There are also two tenses which are a mixture of the past and present:
PRESENT PERFECT (I have looked)
PRESENT PERFECT PROGRESSIVE (I have been looking)
Other ways to talk about the past include use of used to and
The simple past is by far the most common tense used. Check out the
list of irregular verb forms if necessary, and also see guide
3.6 on using active and passive verbs if necessary.
Below we will concentrate on the areas which cause most problems for
students in their writing. As with all tense use, while you are writing
continually ask yourself what time period you are referring to and make
sure that you are consistent with tense use. If you use the simple past,
for example, it means that the event or situation is over.
Simple past or present perfect?
Pay attention here if your first language uses these tenses differently!
The simple past is used to refer to events,actions
or situations in a completed time period in the past:
The treaty was signed in 1913.
She left home when she was 18 and decided to travel round Europe.
The phone rang a couple of minutes ago - I thought you were in the office.
The present perfect would be incorrect in all the above examples. This
is because the present perfect is used to refer to events, actions or
situations in an uncompleted time period (which is not always explicitly
stated); with the present perfect there is always a link with the present.
Compare the following:
I have seen the film To Be Or Not To Be five times. (ie, in
my life, uncompleted!)
I saw Casablanca on TV last night (last night, completed)
Birmingham has been an important city since the nineteenth century
(uncompleted time; it still is)
Before the Industrial Revolution Birmingham was a small town.
(completed time; the Industrial Revolution is over)
I've been to a lot of concerts
recently. (recently includes now)
I didn't go to any concerts while I was in France. (my time
in France is over)
The simple past, therefore, is very often used with expressions of time
such as in 19xx, last year/month/week etc, a second/week/year
etc ago etc: in fact, any expression or idea (explicit or implicit)
that indicates that the time period is finished.
The present perfect, on the other hand, is often found with expressions
such as this year, for x years, since 19xx, today etc.
The simple past is used to talk about the origin of something present.
Who gave you that beautiful necklace?
The music you're listening to was composed by Schubert.
If you choose the wrong tense you could change the meaning completely.
There's a very big difference between these two sentences:
I loved you for 10 years. (but not any more)
I have loved you for 10 years.(and I still do)
Finally, forget misleading "rules"
that you may have been taught in the past, such as that the present
perfect is only used for recent time, or that it cannot be used to refer
to "definite" time: neither is true.
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Simple past or past progressive?
The past progressive is usually
used to "set the scene"; to describe the circumstances, that
is, to say what was happening when something else happened or what was
happening at a particular moment. It is NOT used as a kind of "imperfect"
tense to talk about repeated or habitual actions: the simple past is
used for this.
Look at these examples:
They were completing the final part of their research ...
when their rivals announced they had found a cure.
The British economy was beginning to recover ...
when the collapse of the German Central Bank brought worldwide chaos.
The room was spinning round ...
when I went to bed.
Again, confusing your tenses could change the meaning. If in the last
example you said "The room span round when I went to bed",
this would mean that the spinning only started when you went to bed,
not that it was happening at the time.
One other use is to describe two temporary events going on simultaneously
in the past:
While Blair's popularity was steadily increasing, Hague was becoming
more unpopular by the day.
Simple past or past perfect?
The main use for the past perfect
is to talk about the "past of the past", to go back to an
earlier point in time when we are already talking about the past:
When I arrived at 10.15, the meeting had already started.
I had just finished watching the weather forecast when it started to
In the first example, if you had said "When I arrived the meeting
started", this would mean that everyone had waited for you before
starting the meeting, rather than going ahead without you.
The use of the past perfect has
nothing to do with distance in time: it can refer to a few minutes ago,
or a few million years ago.
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Last updated: 27 May 2011