The difference between English past tenses

Published on: 09/01/2019 By
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As an English student I expect you’ve learned one or two past tenses, such as the past simple and the present perfect. And maybe you’ve seen or heard something about the other past tenses like the past continuous or past perfect. What can be tricky is when you need to combine them or choose which is better, especially when you’re talking, right?

Well don’t worry! It’s absolutely normal to have doubts about which is the right past tense to use. It certainly helps to study them individually first, but it’s really useful to see how they compare and what the key differences are.

So let’s start by briefly reviewing each of the past tenses, then we’ll look at how they work together.

The Past Simple

This is normally the first past tense you study in English and for a good reason because it’s the most common one we use.

There are two essential things to remember with the past simple. In order to use it,

  • the action must be finished
  • the time is clearly finished

For example,

I saw my friend Erika last Saturday.

The action began and ended at a finished time (last Saturday).

We create the past simple by using the past form of the verb (which is the same for all the subjects). And we make the question and negative form with ‘did’. For example,

Did you see Erika last Saturday?

I didn’t see Erika last Saturday.

The Present Perfect

This is perhaps the most challenging past tense to learn, due to its varied use and meanings. To use this tense, the action is 

often recent or has some kind of effect and importance on the present. The two key things to remember with this tense is that,

  • there is an undefined or unfinished time period

OR

  • the action/situation is unfinished

For example,

We’ve arrived at the hotel. (No finished time indicated, and it’s probably recent.)

We’ve been here for ten minutes. (The action started ten minutes ago and continues now.)

To create sentences in the present perfect we use the verb ‘to have’ and the past participle of the main verb. We create the question form by inverting ‘have’ and the subject. And we make the negative form by adding ‘not’. For example,

Have you arrived at the hotel?

We haven’t arrived yet.

We often use words like yet, already, ever, just and for or since with the present perfect.

Combining the Past Simple and the Present Perfect

These two tenses are often used in combination. For example, we can ask about a situation or introduce an experience using the present perfect:

I’ve been to New York.

Then give details using the past simple, once it’s clear the action happened in the past:

The last time I went to New York was in 2016. I stayed in a hotel downtown and visited all the museums. It was great!

Or if I want to know if an action has happened or not, I can use the present perfect, and the person answering can give information using the past simple. For example,

Have you sent those documents to the warehouse?

Yes. I sent them this morning and they’ve already sent them back.

The Past Continuous

We use the past continuous to describe an ongoing action at a particular time in the past. In order to use the past continuous, it must be:

  • an action or situation finished in the past
  • an action that started before a defined finished time and continued at that time, or in combination with a past simple phrase

For example,

We were sleeping at midnight.

We were sleeping when the phone rang.

To make sentences with the past continuous we use ‘was/were’ plus the main verb in the -ing form. For example,

He was eating dinner when I arrived..

To make the question form we invert ‘was/were’ with the subject. And to make the negative we add ‘not’. For example,

Was he eating?

He wasn’t eating dinner.

Combining the Past Simple and the Past Continuous

If you use the past continuous it will almost always be in combination with the past simple. Why? Because we use the past continuous to describe the background to a situation, creating a picture to the situation in which something happens (described using the past simple). For example,

We were driving along the road, chatting about the holidays, when suddenly a car flew past us followed by a police car.

The Past Perfect

We use this tense to talk about something that happened more in the past than something else. It doesn’t have to have happened in the distant past, simply earlier than another action. To use the past perfect,

  • the action must be finished
  • there must be another more recent finished action or past time that it compares to in the sentence

For example,

We had already started the meeting when John arrived.

To make sentences in the past perfect, we use ‘had’ and the past participle of the main verb. To make questions we invert ‘had’ and the subject, and to make negative sentences we add ‘not’. For example,

Had you already started the meeting when John arrived?

We hadn’t started the meeting when John arrived.

We often use ‘already’ with the past perfect. For example,

I didn’t watch the film with my friends because I’d already seen it.

By the time our first course arrived, we’d already finished our drinks.

Combining the Past Simple and the Past Perfect

The past perfect can rarely be used without the past simple because by nature, it needs to have another action with which to be compared. If I describe actions in order, I can simply use the past simple. For example,

I arrived at the office. I had a coffee, and then I went to a meeting..

If I want to start my story with the last action then refer to the previous ones, I need to use the past perfect. For example,

I went to the meeting after I’d had a coffee.

How can we combine all these tenses?

If you think about these verb tenses in terms of time, we can say that,

  • the present perfect is the one closest to the present
  • the past simple and past continuous describe finished actions and situations in the recent or distant past
  • the past perfect refers to an action or situation before another one, in the recent or distant past

So if you’re telling a story, you might start with the present perfect to introduce the situation, and then give the details using the other tenses. For example,

Dad, good news! I’ve found a new job! I was speaking to Tom the other day and he said he’d spoken to his boss and they were looking for a new legal assistant. So I sent them my CV and they arranged an interview for earlier today.

As you can see, past tenses in English aren’t really too difficult to learn, especially due to the fact that they don’t have many variations in how to construct them. But you certainly need to practice using them actively yourself, especially in speaking because you have less time to think than when you write or read.

In order to gain more confidence and understanding of these past tenses, it also helps a lot to read stories and articles because they typically use almost exclusively past tenses. But in order to start practicing right away, try this short quiz. It will give you the chance to see how all these tenses work together.

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Mary Milne avatar

Mary Milne

Author of this post

Mary Milne has worked for Wall Street English for 20 years. After studying at the University of Bristol and subsequently doing a CELTA course, she began her career in teaching. Over the years she has gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in ESL and has worked as an Online Community Manager, and author for Wall Street English International and Pearson, writing informative educational content. She dedicates most of her free time to music, playing in a band and singing in a choir.

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