Basic English Tenses: The Past

From the previous article, we’ve learned that there are precisely four ways in the English language to express the present. To describe things and actions that started and ended in the past or begin in the past and continue to the present, we can also use four different ways. 

And just as for all the present tenses, there are, again, certain “signal words” that help you to find out which form of the past tense you ought to use. 

Past Simple

This English past tense is usually used for completed actions in a time before now. It’s the primary form of past tenses in English. You usually just 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 need the auxiliary “do,” which conjugates to “did” in combination with the verb’s base form.

Again, it’s essential to keep in mind that the action you talk about must be finished, as well as the time is clearly finished (once, never, or several times.)

  • Statement: You looked fabulous 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 speak to her.
  • Question: Did she forget to do her homework?


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) Series of finished 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, head to the new restaurant for lunch, and spent a few hours there.

3) Action in the past that took place in the middle of another action

  • When I was having dinner yesterday, the doorbell rang.
  • They were having a great time when suddenly they heard a scream.
  • While we were dining out, someone broke into our house and stole our TV.

4) “if”-sentences

  • If Steve had more money, he would finally go on vacation.
  • I would hang out more with my friends if I had more free time.
  • If she cared more about 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 Continuoues / Past Progressive

You use the Past Continuous / Past Progressive (it’s both the same) to express an action that was happening precisely at a particular point in time in the past. It is formed using was/were + present participle (infinitive verb form + the ending “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?


1) Actions that were in progress at a particular 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 (but don’t influence each other)

  • 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.

3) Action in the past that took place in the middle of another action

(in combination with the Past Simple tense)

  • I was getting ready for the party later when suddenly the doorbell rang.
  • We were meeting up with some friends after class when the incident happened.
  • Were you having breakfast when she ran out of the room?

4) Repetitive irritating/shocking actions in the past or simple past habits

(It’s sometimes supposed to express the idea that something annoying or irritating often happens and, therefore, implies negative emotion. Remember to put the words “always,” “constantly,” “repeatedly,” or “forever” between “was/were” and the infinitive verb form + the ending “ing”)

  • They were always complaining about their homework.
  • He was constantly lying about his whereabouts.
  • We were repeatedly apologizing for our bad behavior.
  • She was forever working on that specific task.

Signal Words:

  • while
  • when
  • as long as

Past Perfect

Compared to the “Present Perfect” tense, the “Past Perfect” is much easier to understand. It’s used for actions that started and ended in the past before another action that happened in the past. As always, keep in mind that the action must be finished and that there must be another more recently completed action or event for comparison.

 It is formed with “had” + past participle of the main verb.

  • Statement: I had finished my homework.
  • Negative Statement: He hadn’t asked me anything.
  • Question: Had you gone home?


1) Past action before another past action

(in combination with the “Past Simple”)

  • We’d lived in Canada before we moved to Australia.
  • I hadn’t been to the gym before I got there.
  • They hadn’t eaten for two days, so they were quite hungry.
  • We had never seen her before. We didn’t know who she was.
  • Where had they gone? I just saw them at the bar, but they weren’t there anymore.

2) Certain conditional sentences

(It’s about a specific condition that wasn’t given in the past)

  • If I had known his intentions before, I would have talked him out of it.
  • They would’ve come to the party if they had been invited.
  • We wouldn’t have done this if we had known the consequences then.

Signal Words:

  • already
  • never
  • just
  • not yet
  • once
  • until that day (referencing to the past, not the present)
  • “If I had…” (conditional sentence)

Past Perfect Continuous / Past Perfect Progressive

The “Past Perfect Continuous/Progressive” corresponds to the “Present Perfect Continuous/Progressive,” but concerning a time earlier than before now. As with the “Present Perfect Continuous/Progressive,” we are more interested in the process itself. It is formed with had + been + infinitive verb form + the ending “ing.”

  • Statement: He had been acting quite strange at that time.
  • Negative Statement: She hadn’t been working for the last couple of days.
  • Question: Had you been doing your homework while I was gone?


1) How long an action/event had been happening before something else happened

  • We hadn’t been waiting there for three hours just for you not to show up!
  • I had been shivering in the cold out there for two hours before the train finally arrived!
  • For how long had you been staying at your friend’s place before the landlord finished refurbishing the bathroom in your apartment?

2) In reported speech

  • James said, “I have been reading a new book all afternoon.” = James said he had been reading a new book all afternoon.
  • When the teacher asked Sarah where she had been the day before, she said, “I’ve been feeling sick and have been staying in bed all day long.” = When the teacher asked Sarah where she had been the day before, Sarah told her she had been feeling sick and had been staying in bed all day long.

Signal Words:

  • for
  • since
  • the whole day/week/year…
  • all-day/night
  • how long