1. Past simple
- + verb + -ed (or -d) = He worked for the police.
- – did not + verb = She didn’t work for the police.
- ? did … + verb? = Did they work for the police?
- Irregular verbs: Many verbs are irregular: went (go), came (come), wrote (write).
- the verb “be” is irregular: He/she/it was; you/we/they were.
We use the past simple
A. To talk about single past completed actions. Often the time is mentioned:
- A few weeks ago a woman called to report a robbery at her house.
But no time reference is necessary if it is already known:
- How did the burglar break in without anybody hearing him? (in the story I just told you about)
B. To give a series of actions in the order that they happened:
The burglar came in through the front door, picked up the woman’s handbag, emptied it out and stole her purse.
(he came in / picked up the handbag / emptied it out / and stole her purse) —-> THE PAST
(….X….) —-> NOW
We often use words like next or then to indicate the sequence of events:
Then, the burglar went into the front room, opened all the cupboards and took a valuable collection of CDs.
C. To talk about past repeated actions:
When her son got older he often went out to visit his friends after school.
Notice that ‘used to’ and ‘would’ can also be used.
D. To talk about long-term situations in the past which are no longer true:
Bill Murphy worked for the police force for over 17 years.
(he worked for the police force for over 17 years) (………X……..)
(<———————–17 YEARS———————–>) (<—NOW—>)
Explorers at that time believed that the world was flat. (Notice that ‘used to’ can also be used.)
2 Past continuous
- was/were + verb + -ing = She was watching the news.
- was/were not + verb + -ing = They weren’t watching the news.
- was/were + verb + -ing? = Were you watching the news?
We use the past continuous:
A. To provide the background scene to an action or event (usually in the past simple).
We often use words like when, while and as:
- It happened at five in the afternoon while she was watching the news on TV.
- He was doing his homework in his bedroom when the burglar came into the house.
he was doing his homework (PAST)
“the burglar came into the house” (PAST)
It is possible to have more than one background scene happening at the same time:
- He was listening to music and working on his computer.
When we want to emphasize the activity without focusing on its completion.
- For a while last year I was working at the cinema, studying for my degree and writing a column for the local newspaper. (we don’t know if the actions were completed or not, or whether they happened at the same time)
- Last year I worked at the cinema, studied for my degree and wrote a column for the local newspaper. (suggests all of the jobs are now complete, and probably happened in that order)
Note: State verbs do not generally have a continuous form.
3 Used to and would
- used to / would + infinitive = She used to / would lock the door.
- did not + use to + infinitive = I didn’t use to lock the door.
- did … use to + infinitive? = Did they use to lock the door?
A. We use used to + infinitive or would + infinitive (contracted to ‘d in spoken English) to talk about past repeated actions:
- She used to keep the front door locked. (but she stopped doing this)
- She would leave the door unlocked whenever she was at home.
NOTE: ‘Would’ is unusual in the negative form and in Yes/No questions.
B. We use used to + infinitive to talk about permanent situations that are usually no longer true:
- Bill Murphy used to work for the police force. (but he doesn’t now : NOT
Bill Murphy would work for the police force.)
We do not use used to if we want to talk about how long the situation lasted:
Bill Murphy worked for the police force for over 17 years. (not
Bill Murphy used to work for the police force for over 17 years.)
NOTE: We do not use would with state verbs.
4. Past perfect simple
- had + past participle = They had listened to his music.
- had not + past participle = They hadn’t listened to his music.
- had + past participle? = Had they listened to his music?
We use the past perfect simple:
A. When we are talking about the past and want to mention something that happened earlier:
- His father was a composer and his grandfather had also been a musician. (Mozart’s grandfather was a musician and then later his father became a composer)
Sometimes we use words like just or already. Notice that these adverbs go between the auxiliary and the main verb:
- By the time he was 17, Mozart’s reputation had already begun to spread through Europe.
NOTE: We use the past simple tense if the events are mentioned in chronological order:
- His grandfather was a musician and his father was also a composer.
B. With words like when, as soon as, by the time, after to show the order of events:
- When Mozart was born, five of his siblings had already died. (Mozart’s siblings died first, then Mozart was born)
NOTE: Notice the difference in meaning between these two sentences:
- When I got home, my husband cooked dinner. (= I got home and then my husband cooked dinner)
- When I got home, my husband had cooked dinner: (= my husband cooked dinner before I got home)
C. To talk about an indefinite time before a particular point in the past, often with words like always, sometimes, never, before, by + fixed time:
- His family were richer than they had ever been before. (= they were not as rich at any time before this point in the past)
- By the time he was six, the little boy had written a composition of his own.
D. To report past events using reporting verbs:
- The man told me he had met my father a long time before.
2 Past perfect continuous
- had been + verb + -ing = She’d been studying for ages.
- had not been + verb + -ing = He hadn’t been studying for long.
- had … been + verb + -ing? = Had you been studying for long?
We use the past perfect continuous to focus on how long an activity continued or to focus on the activity itself:
- Times were hard and the family had been struggling for some time. (to show how long)
- Mozart’s sister was extremely gifted at the keyboard and she had been making excellent progress. (focus on the activity)
NOTE: We cannot use the past perfect continuous to say how many times something happened:
- I knew the way as I had visited her several times before. (NOT
I knew the way as I had been visiting her several times before.)
NOTE: State verbs do not generally have a continuous form.
3. Grammar extra:
We use the past perfect to talk about past disappointments or things that did not happen as expected:
- The politician had expected to be re-elected, but in the end she only got ten per cent of the vote.
- I had been hoping to go with my brother on his trip but I was too sick to go.