English Tenses for Beginners: The Past

The “past tense” is another important English tense. You use it when you talk about things and events that happened in the past. The “past tense” is also important for events that started in the past and continue to the present. There are four “past tenses” in English. But, again, we will only show you the three most common past tenses. There are also “signal words” that will help you along the way. 

Past Simple

You use the English “Past Simple” for actions and events that happened in a time before now. It is the easiest past tense in English. You usually add “-ed” at the end of your (regular) verb. However, watch out for irregular verbs as they have their own past form. If you use negative or question sentences, you also need to add “do” or “did” to your verb.

Remember: the event or action you talk about must be finished!

  • Statement: You looked beautiful in that dress.
  • Negative Statement: You didn’t talk to him.
  • Question: Did he speak to you?
  • Statement: He ate an apple.
  • Negative Statement: He didn’t want to talk to her.
  • Question: Did she forget to do her homework?

Used for:

1) Actions finished in the past (once, never, or several times)

  • I was born in the UK. 
  • He never played golf and isn’t interested in that sport. 
  • We visited our parents every weekend.
  • They came by his house several times, but he never answered the door.
  • Did you check your emails this morning?

2) A series of actions in the past

  • She came home, took off her shoes, and prepared dinner.
  • When I arrived at the office today, my boss came up to my desk and asked for a quick meeting.
  • They went out, had lunch at the new restaurant, and spent time at the park.

3) “if”-sentences

  • If Steve had more money, he would go on vacation.
  • I would hang out more with my friends if I had more time.
  • If she did her homework, she would have better grades.

Signal Words:

  • yesterday
  • last… (week, year, etc.)
  • a month/year / two minutes ago
  • in (year)
  • the other day

Past Continuous / Past Progressive

You use the “Past Continuous” / “Past Progressive” (it’s both the same) to express an action or event that happened at a very specific point in time in the past. You also use it to describe to events happening at the same time in the past. It is formed using was/were + verb + “-ing”

  • Statement: He was talking on the phone last night.
  • Negative Statement: I wasn’t joking right this morning. 
  • Question: Were you working at the time the incident happened?

Used for:

1) Actions that happened at a specific time in the past

  • I was doing my homework last evening.
  • Was he sleeping at that time?
  • They were watching TV.
  • She wasn’t working at that moment.
  • Were you listening?

2) Two actions happening at the same time

  • I was studying while my sister was watching TV.
  • He was trying to eat a healthy meal while his parents were eating a cheeseburger in front of him.
  • We were losing our minds trying to find a solution while our team leader enjoyed himself in the lounge area.

Signal Words:

  • while
  • when
  • as long as

Present Perfect

The “Present Perfect” is a little more difficult to understand. It is a combination of the past and the present. You use it for actions that started in the past and ended in the present. The “Present Perfect” is also used when you talk about experiences that happened in the past, but you don’t know the exact time. It is formed with have/has + regular verb + “-ed”. For “irregular verbs,” it is a little bit different, but we will talk about this in another lesson.

  • Statement: I have just finished my homework.
  • Negative Statement: He hasn’t had dinner for days.
  • Question: Have you gone home?

Used for:

1) Things From The Past That Happened Until Now

  • He hasn’t finished his homework yet.
  • We’ve just left for school. 
  • Since when has he been the team’s coach?

2) Events/Experiences Happening During an Unknown Time Before Now

  • We’ve lived in Canada for some years.
  • I have been a student of this school.
  • Our daughter has learned how to read.

Signal Words:

  • already
  • ever
  • just
  • never
  • not yet
  • so far
  • until now
  • up to now