Past Tense – Learn with Grammar Man
In this lesson, I want to go over all 4 aspects of the past tense. So past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
I understand tenses can seem overwhelming when you are first learning them, but it is such a foundational skill, that it is worth spending time on. The good news is it is not as complex as you might think. Let’s break it down now, and try to simplify things.
We have 3 tenses, past, present and future. And 4 sub-categories of each tense. We call these aspects.
So let’s go through all 4 aspects of past tense.
The first one is past simple.
We form past simple with subject + past simple form of the verb. (The second column).
Remember, subject is just ‘who or what’ does the verb.
So we use past simple for a completed past action.
An example – I walked to the shop yesterday – it’s a completed past action.
You can also join past actions together, in the order they occurred.
E.g., I finished work and walked to the beach and went for a swim.
So far, these two examples are quite short actions. We can also use past simple for a longer action.
For example, I lived in Brazil for 2 years.
This is a completed past action, I don’t live in Brazil anymore.
To make negative, we add an auxiliary verb ‘did’ + not, normally contracted to didn’t, before the main verb.
I didn’t walk to the shop.
You will notice we don’t say ‘I didn’t walked to the shop’ – we don’t conjugate the main verb in the negative, because ‘did’ is already in the past tense.
Positive sentence: john walked to the shop (past)
negative: john didn’t walk to the shop
and questions, we add the auxiliary verb before the subject: did john walk to the shop? (once again, we use did, which is the past of do (do, did, have done), so we don’t need to conjugate the main verb, walk.)
And we can also add a question word: why did John walk to the shop? When did John walk to the shop?
Ok, one last example of past simple; a completed past event:
Sam was hungry – completed past event, Sam is not hungry anymore.
It fits the formula, subject + past simple (was is past form of am)
You will notice this time that the main verb is an auxiliary verb, was, so we just add not after the verb, to make negative:
Sam was not hungry, or contracted, Sam wasn’t hungry.
And questions: was Sam hungry? Why was Sam hungry?
Alright, so now we will move on to past continuous:
We form this aspect with Subject + was/were + verb-ing
We use this structure to show: an action, that was in progress at a specific time in the past.
For example: I was watching TV at 8’oclock last night.
We often use the structure to show a longer action, that was in progress in the past, and was interrupted by a shorter action.
Some examples: I was watching TV last night when the phone rang.
So I was doing a longer action, watching Netflix, and then a shorter action happened. The phone rang.
The longer action we use past continuous: I was watching Netflix, and the short action is past simple, the phone rang.
Another example: I was walking in the forest when I tripped over the rock.
I was walking is the longer action, so we use past continuous, and then I tripped over the rock, this is the short action, we use past simple.
So often the shorter action and longer action are connected using the word ‘when’, and we can also use the word ‘while’.
While I was eating dinner last night, I choked on my steak.
longer action – eating dinner – past continuous, and then a short action happened, the steak got caught in my throat, and I choked is in the past simple.
And the final way that we use past continuous is to show multiple actions that are happening at the same time. They are both long actions. We call these parallel actions.
Example: I was studying while he was making dinner. Both actions took around the same length of time. There was not a short action that interrupted the longer action this time, so both actions are in the past continuous aspect.
Another example: The sun was shining and the birds were singing.
I was reading a book and my son was playing in the garden.
So that brings us to past perfect.
We form past perfect with subject + had + the past participle – the third form of the verb.
We use past perfect to sequence past actions – to show a completed past action that happened before something else in the past. So it is not in the order of occurrence, unlike the past simple.
For example – we had already started cooking when our guests arrived.
This means that when our guests arrived, so that is in the past, before they arrived we had started cooking.
We had already started cooking when they arrived.
If we had used past simple, the meaning would be completely different.
The same sentence in past simple would be: We started cooking when our guests arrived. This means we started cooking when, or after they arrived. So opposite meaning!
One more examples:
I didn’t have any money for a bus ticket because my wallet had been stolen.
So my wallet had been stolen before I wanted to buy a bus ticket.
Something that happened before something else in the past.
One thing to note, is that if we use words that make it obvious what the order of events are, then past perfect aspect is optional.
For example, if I said, ‘I’d read the book before I watched the movie’, this is past perfect – ‘I had read the book’. before I watched the movie. This is grammatically correct.
Now, because we can understand that we had read the book before we watched the movie, because of the word BEFORE, we could also use past simple here.
E.g., I read the book before I watched the movie. Order of events is clear, so past simple or past perfect are both correct in this example, because of the word BEFORE.
And finally, we have the past perfect continuous aspect.
We form the past perfect continuous aspect with subject + had + been + verb-ing.
This is mainly used to show the duration of an event, that continued up until a specified point in the past.
It stops before now. UNLIKE the present perfect, which continues up until now, the past perfect stops before now.
Example sentence: ‘I had been dating Claudia for 3 years when we got married’. So I got married, married is past tense, so I got married some time in the past…and before that time, I had been dating Claudia for 3 years.
Another example: I stopped for a rest because I had been driving for so long. I’d been driving for so long, that is a duration; so long, and I had been driving for so long, until I stopped for a rest, so I stopped driving before now.
The other reason we use past perfect continuous is to show a progressive action that took place before another action in the past, to show cause and effect.
Example: The road was wet because it had been raining. It had been raining, it stopped before now, it’s not raining anymore. The road is also not wet anymore, because it says – the road was wet, which is past simple, a completed past action.
Alrighty, and that brings us to the end of ‘THE PAST TENSE’. That was a general overview, I suggest watching this video using the pause button, the colours really help learners to grasp these concepts and formulas. Also, make sure you log on to www.progressive-english.ch, that is my language school here in Switzerland, and download your free cheat sheet on the past tense. This is an extremely valuable resource, it has timelines and key words, I give it to all my students on their first day, so don’t miss out on this free learning aid! On the website you can also book lessons, including Skype lessons with me and other teachers, if you are not located in Switzerland. Apart from all of that, I wish you all the very best with your English language goals, and life goals…Cheers.