Do you have difficulty with the past tenses in English? Do you know the difference between the past simple and past perfect? Knowing what they are and when to use them can be tricky, but don’t worry we are here to help you with all your past tense doubts!

We’ll show you when to use them and give you some fun ways to practise them at home!

So, let’s start by looking at the four main past tense forms in English and their most common uses.

Paste tenses in English | 4 past tenses and when to use them | Oxford House Barcelona

1. Past Simple

 

The first past tense you’ll often learn in your English classes is the past simple.

Form

For regular verbs we add -ed to the infinitive form of the verb. E.g.

Paste tenses in English | 4 past tenses and when to use them | Oxford House Barcelona
Past simple - Regular Verbs | Oxford House Barcelona

Irregular verbs however, take a different form. There are hundreds of irregular verbs and you just have to learn them off by heart! Here are some of the most common:

Past Tense - Irregular Verbs | Oxford House Barcelona

Use

The main use of the past simple is for finished actions in the past. For example:

  • I was born in San Francisco.
  • I cleaned my room.
  • I forgot my key.
 

We can use it with a finished time phrase like in the sentences below:

  • Yesterday I went to the supermarket.
  • Last night we watched the football.
  • The phone rang five minutes ago.
 

Other common time expressions you can use are:

last month, last week, last summer, in 1997, when I was a child, a long time ago, on Monday, in February etc.

We also use the past simple for the main action when telling a story.

E.g. I woke up on my wedding day, I jumped out of bed and immediately called my brother. He didn’t pick up and so I began to worry.

Let’s see how much you’ve learned!

Activity One

We are going to test your knowledge of regular and irregular verbs! Watch this cartoon of Mr Bean making spaghetti. Then have a go at conjugating the verbs below into the past simple. Finally put the sequence in order they appear in the video!

 

 

Mr. Bean:

________ (brush) his teeth

________ (try) to cook spaghetti in the pot

________ (put) the spaghetti in the bath

________ (kill) the bird

________ (take) the spaghetti out of the cupboard.

*Check your answers at the end of this post.

2. Past Continuous

 

Another common past tense is the past continuous.

Form

We form it using was/were + verb + ing.

Use

A common use of the past continuous is to show that a longer action was interrupted (usually by a shorter action in the past simple). We often use the time expression when. For example:

  • I was swimming in the sea when I saw a shark.
  • Henry was sitting at home when the phone rang.
  • She was playing golf when it began to rain.
 

When two continuous actions are happening at the same time we use the time expression while.

  • I was talking to Sarah while she was driving.
  • We were playing while dad was cooking dinner.
 

We can also use it to show a continuous action happening at a specific time in the past.

  • Yesterday morning I was practising the piano.
  • At 6 o’clock I was eating dinner.
  • What were you doing at 8pm last night?
 

Finally, it can be used to add some description to a story.

E.g. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. We were walking around our favourite park.

Note we don’t usually use continuous tenses with stative verbs.

Now let’s practise!

Activity Two

Look at these pictures and complete the sentences with your own ideas!

At 8 o’clock last night I was…

It was a Wednesday afternoon…

 

*Check your answers at the end of this post

 

3. Past Perfect

 

Now we can move on to a slightly more difficult tense – the past perfect.

Form

We make the past perfect by using had + past participle.

Use

We use it when one action happens before another past action. For example:

A. The film had started when we arrived. (the film started before we arrived)

B. The film started when we arrived (we arrived at the same time the film started)

We use time expressions such as before, by the time and when.

Be careful lots of students overuse the past perfect! Remember you only use it for actions that happened before the main action.

Activity Three

Learn more about the past perfect with this grammar game show from BBC Learning English.

 

 

How many answers did you get correct?

&nhbsp;

4. Past Perfect Continuous

 

The past perfect continuous is very similar to the past perfect.

Form

We form the past perfect continuous with had + been + verb + ing.

Use

We use it to show that an action which started in the past continued up to another point in the past. For example:

  • She had been living in Italy for three years when she lost her job.
  • I had been waiting for ten minutes before the bus came.
  • By the time Steve arrived I had been working for nearly eight hours!

 

With the past perfect we use time expressions such as for five hours, for 2 weeks, for a long time, by the time.

We can also use it to talk about the cause of something in the past. E.g.

  • Susan was sweating because she had been running.
  • Henry was late because he had been studying.
 

Note we don’t usually use continuous tenses with stative verbs.

Activity Four

Practise when to use past perfect vs. past perfect continuous with this quiz!

Choose the correct answer in each question:

1. The children were tired because they had played all morning / had been playing all morning.

2. The customers were angry because the waiter had forgotten / had been forgetting their order.

3. He had married / had been marrying her two years before we met.

4. I had never stayed / had never been staying in London until 2012.

5. We had tried / had been trying the door for several hours before Anna found her key.

*Check your answers at the end of this post.

Activity Five

Finally, put all your new knowledge to the test! Look at this photo and answer the questions below using the different past tenses. Leave us a comment below with your ideas!

 

Speculate

1. Where was this photo taken?

2. Why was the man looking at the people in the background when the photo was taken?

3. What had happened just before the photo was taken?

4. Where had the man been going before the photo was taken?

*Check your answers at the end of this post.

Did you enjoy this blog? Had you studied all these rules before reading it? Leave us a comment and let us know!

You may also like to read our article about common grammar mistakes in English.

*Answers

Activity One:

E) He took the spaghetti out of the cupboard.

B) He tried to cook spaghetti in the pot.

C) He put the spaghetti in the bath.

A) He brushed his teeth.

D) He killed the bird.

Activity Two (example sentences):

At 8 o’clock last night I was watching TV.

At 8 o’clock last night I was reading a book.

At 8 o’clock last night I was cooking my dinner.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, it was raining heavily, I was sitting on the bus trying not to fall asleep.

Activity Four:

had been playing.

had forgotten.

had married.

had never stayed.

had been trying.

Activity Five (example sentences):

The photo was taken in a hotel.

The man was looking at the people in the background because he thought he recognised one of the women.

Just before the photo was taken the man had gone to the kitchen to get a drink of water.

The man had been walking back to his room before the photo was taken.

Glossary for Language Learners

 

Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Tricky (adj):: difficult.

Off by heart (exp): from memory.

To conjugate (v): to add different endings to a verb in order to produce all its different forms.

To move on (pv): to transition to something new.

Overuse (v): to use something too much.

Game show (n): a television programme where contestants win prizes.

Speculate (v): to guess possible answers to a question when you do not have enough information to be certain.

Key

adj = adjective

pv = phrasal verb

v = verb

n = noun

exp = expression

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