Past Tense

1. What is the Past Tense?

The past tense is the way we share and discuss things that happened before now; in the past. To write and speak in the past tense, we use verb forms that show that the time in the sentence has already occurred. But, the past is a huge timeline—it can range from five minutes ago, to yesterday, to last week, to last month, to years or centuries ago! Things we want to share could have also occurred one time, over a period of time, or even still be going on now. So, there are many different ways of using the past tense.

 

2. Examples

As explained above, there’s rarely only one way to describe something that happened in the past. Here are some examples of different ways we can speak in the past tense:

  • I wrote a book.      Simple Past
  • He was writing a book.      Past Continuous
  • We had written a book already.      Past Perfect
  • They had been writing the book in class.      Past Perfect Continuous

 

3. Parts of the Past Tense

In the past tense, we conjugate the verbs to show an action that already happened. But, sometimes those verbs need a little “help” to fit the tense, so to do that we need “helping verbs,” called auxiliary verbs and modal auxiliaries.

a. Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs, or auxiliaries, are versions of the verbs to be, have, and do:

  • To be: am, are, is, be, been, being, was, were
  • Have: had, has, have, having
  • Do: do, did, does

A sentence that is missing an auxiliary verb is easy to recognize:

  • Jane watching TV earlier.
  • She been talking on the phone when her parents came home.
  • She know what time it was, but she said she didn’t.

These sentences are confusing and incomplete, and need some “help.” So, we need auxiliaries— let’s add them (purple):

  • Jane was watching TV earlier.
  • She had been talking on the phone when her parents came home.
  • She did know what time it was, but she said she didn’t.

Now these sentences make sense! As said, it’s easy to see when a sentence needs them!

b. Modal Auxiliary Verbs

In the past tense, modal auxiliary verbs, or modal auxiliaries, show how likely it was that something happened or if it was possible that something happened. The main modal auxiliaries are:

  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • must
  • shall
  • should
  • will
  • would

These examples show four different ways to use modals (green) to reflect on the same situation in the past:

  • Jane might have cooked dinner.      Maybe happened
  • Jane could have cooked.      Possibly happened
  • Jane must have cooked.      Probably happened
  • Jane should have cooked dinner.      Didn’t happen

c. Conjugated Verbs

As mentioned before, the verbs used in the past tense need to be conjugated to show that the action has already happened. In the past tense, regular verbs have ed at the end, but, as you probably know, irregular verbs follow all different forms. This chart will help you see the way both regular and irregular verbs are conjugated in the past tense, and how they work with helping verbs.

Base VerbSimple PastPast ContinuousPast PerfectPast Perfect Continuous
talktalkedwas talkinghad talkedhad been talking
hearheardwas hearinghad heardhad been hearing
dodidwas doinghad donehad been doing
runranwas runninghad runhad been running
workworkedwas workinghad workedhad been working
trytriedwas tryinghad triedhad been trying

To see how these verbs work in other tenses, you can take a look at our articles on the present tense and the future tense.

 

4. Types of Past Tenses

Since things happen in so many ways, the English language lets us express them in many ways. It’s very important to be able to recognize and use the different tenses for different situations—even though sometimes it may seem like there are an endless number of them! Here, we will show how to use four of the main types of the past tense: simple past, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous. In the examples, the parts of the sentence that decide the tense are orange.

a. Simple Past

The simple past is a “simple” way to share past events, and can reflect something happened from any time in the past. It’s also the main way we express that we did something one time, but can also cover things that happened many times. Its form is easy: Subject + Past Verb.

  • I ate a cheeseburger for dinner last night.
  • Jane heard birds singing.
  • You looked great yesterday!
  • She ran fast!

b. Past Continuous

The past continuous tense shares events or actions that happened continuously; they were going on for a while or over a period of time in the past. To show this, we use verbs ending in ing. Sentences in the past continuous tense follow the form Subject + Verb to be + ing Verb:

  • Jane was listening to music.
  • I was eating a cheeseburger.
  • They were ruining the party!
  • The dogs were barking loudly.

c. Past Perfect

The past perfect tense describes something that we have done before, but also matters now. We use it to clarify that one event happened before another event in the past. To use the past perfect, we need the auxiliary had before the main verb to show that we “had done” something. Then, we need to add the main verb, in its past-tense form. As you know, the past form of regular verbs ends in ed, but irregular verbs have different forms.

So, a sentence in the past perfect follows the form Subject + Had + Past form of main verb:

  • Jane had traveled to Europe already, she wanted to go to Asia.
  • I had eaten squid, but I had never eaten octopus.
  • They had lived in that house for 10 years when they received the eviction notice.
  • He had taken the exam already, and felt confident that he had done well.

d. Past Perfect Continuous

The past perfect continuous describes actions that we had been doing or had been going on continuously before a certain time in the past, but aren’t going on anymore. It’s often used to express a situation where something had been happening until something else happened. To use it, we need to use had and been combined with the continuous form of the verb (ending in ing) to show that we “had been” doing the action.

Sentences written in the past perfect continuous follow Subject + had been + ing Verb:

  • Because Jane had been looking at her iPhone all morning, she didn’t hear the news.
  • I had been eating a lot of cheeseburgers; then I realized it was unhealthy.
  • They had been living in that house since 2006, but they moved.
  • He had been taking that exam for 2 hours when the teacher said “time’s up!”

 

5. How to Write in the Past Tense

It’s easy to speak in the past tense—we frequently talk about things we’ve done, from when we were born to what we ate for breakfast! But, writing in the past tense is challenging for many writers. The most important thing to remember is that the past tense reflects things that already happened—in the PAST.

Here’s a list of questions to help you decide whether the past tense is the right tense for what you are trying to say:

  • Are you sharing something you did recently?
  • Did the main action already happen?
  • Do you need to show that one event happened before another in the past?
  • Was something going on for a while (but isn’t anymore)?
  • Did something happen because of something else in the past?

If you can answer yes to these questions, then you definitely want to use the past tense. If you answer no, then you should think about whether you need another tense for what you want to say. Remember—the past tense is the only way to share things that happened in the past! So, you don’t want to use it to talk about something that is going on now, or will go on in the future.

Test your Knowledge

1.
For action that was going on for a while in the past, we can use:

a.

b.

c.

d.

2.
For action that happened one time in the past, we usually use:

a.

b.

c.

d.

3.
Which tense uses verbs ending in ing?

a.

b.

c.

d.

4.
To make clear that one thing happened before another in the past, we use:

a.

b.

c.

d.

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