There are several ways of talking about actions that happened in the past. These include the simple past, the past progressive, the present perfect, the past perfect, and the phrase used to.
THE SIMPLE PAST
You usually make the simple past by adding -ed to the end of the verb. For example:
I walk I walked
we wait we waited
they jump they jumped
Many common verbs have irregular simple past forms, and so you have to use a special ending, or change the verb in some other way. For example:
I go I went
we buy we bought
they see they saw
You use the simple past to talk about an action which happened and finished in the past. There is a space between the time when the action happened, and the time when you are speaking or writing about it.
He kicked the ball into the net.
I went home early because I had a headache.
The police found a dead body in the river.
You often use words or phrases such as at midnight, on Tuesday, in 1992, yesterday, and last year with the simple past, to draw attention to the time when something happened. For example:
Our visitors arrived yesterday.
Where did you go last week?
The war ended in 1945.
THE PAST PROGRESSIVE
You make the past progressive by using was or were, followed by the main verb with an -ing ending, for example I was looking, they were laughing.
The past progressive is used in the following ways:
1. You use the past progressive when you want to talk about something that happened in the past, and continued to happen for only a limited period of time.
We were living in France at that time.
I was trying to get the waiter’s attention.
The man was looking at me in a very strange way.
2. You use the past progressive to talk about something which continued to happen for a period of time, during which another thing happened.
I was watching TV when the phone rang.
They met each other while they were staying in London.
Some verbs are not usually used in the progressive. Don’t say, “I was not believing him”. Say I did not believe him.
Do not use the progressive with the following verbs:
be have see believe like agree know love disagree
recognize hate mean remember prefer need
understand want deserve wish belong
THE PRESENT PERFECT
You make the present perfect by using has or have, followed by the past participle form of the main verb, for example I have walked, she has gone, they have seen.
The present perfect is used in the following ways:
1. You use the present perfect to talk about something that happened in the past and is finished, but which still affects the situation now.
Someone has broken the window. (RESULT NOW: it is still broken, and needs to be mended)
The taxi has arrived. (RESULT NOW: someone needs to go and get into the taxi)
Jane’s hurt her hand, so she can’t write. (RESULT NOW: Jane can’t write)
You often use just and recently with the present perfect in this meaning.
Jane’s just left, but you might catch her in the car park.
In American English, people often use the simple past instead of the present perfect in this sense.
British English American English
I’ve just seen Carol. I just saw Carol.
You’ve already told me that. You already told me that.
Have they come home yet? Did they come home yet?
2. You use the present perfect to say that something started to happen in the past, and has continued to happen up to now. There is a clear difference with the past tense, which you use when the action is finished. Compare these sentences:
present perfect: I have lived in Chicago for many years. (=I still live there now)
simple past: I lived in Chicago for many years. (=”now” I live somewhere else)
present perfect: Jim has worked for us since 1992. (=”he” still works for us now)
simple past: Jim worked for us from 1992 to 1996. (=”he” does not work for us any more)
Don’t say ‘I am living here for 10 years’, or ‘I live here for 10 years’. Say’ I have lived here for 10 years’.
3. You use the present perfect to talk about something that happened at some time in the past before now, but it is not important to say when it happened.
She has had several jobs abroad.
There have been problems with this system in the past.
This meaning of the present perfect is often used in news reports.
There has been a big earthquake in Japan, and hundreds of people have been killed.
You can emphasize this meaning by using ever in questions, or never in negative sentences. For example:
Have you ever visited Scotland?
I’ve never been in a plane before.
If you give the date, year, or time when something happened, you must use the simple past, not the present perfect. For example:
I spoke to him yesterday. NOT I have spoken to him yesterday.
They arrived in the US last week. NOT They have arrived in the US last week.
THE PRESENT PERFECT PROGRESSIVE
You make the present perfect progressive by using have been/has been, followed by the main verb with an â€‘ing ending, for example I have been living, she has been studying. The present perfect progressive has very similar meanings to the present perfect, but draws attention to the period of time during which the action has taken place.
The present perfect progressive is used in the following ways:
1. You use the present perfect progressive to talk about something which has continued to happen for a period of time in the past, and which may still be happening now.
How long have you been learning English?
We’ve been expecting them to arrive since last Thursday.
2. You use the present progressive to talk about something which has been taking place recently and which affects the situation now.
You look tired!. I’ve been working really hard.
It’s been raining all week, so the ground’s very wet.
Don’t say ‘I’ve been knowing John for a long time’. Say ‘I have known John for a Iong time’.
THE PAST PERFECT
If you want to talk about a past action which took place before another past action, you can use had, followed by the past participle of the main verb.
After the visitors had left, we watched TV.
They told me that the taxi had already arrived
You can also use the past perfect in a progressive form by using had been, and putting it in front of a main verb with an -ing ending.
We had only been driving for an hour when the car ran out of petrol.
Using the right time phrases with the past tense
If you use words or phrases about time with the simple past, they must have a meaning which shows there has been a space between the time when the action or event happened and the time when you are talking or writing about it. For example:
I saw John yesterday/a week ago/last Tuesday.
If you use other words or phrases about time with the present perfect, they must have a meaning which shows that the action has continued up to the present, and may still going on. For example:
I haven’t seen John since Monday/so far/yet.
Don’t say ‘I’ve seen him a week ago’ or ‘I didn’t see John since Monday’.
You use used to when you want to say that something happened in the past over a period of time, but it no longer happens now. It is found only in the past tense. You use used to with the basic form of the main verb, for example used to smoke, used to live, used to be.
I used to play football a lot when I was at school.
She used to smoke 40 cigarettes a day.
The club used to be very fashionable.
They used to live in Los Angeles.
In negatives, you say didn’t use to, or used not to.
I didn’t use to like spicy food. OR I used not to like spicy food.
In questions, you say did (you/she/john etc) use to … ?
Did you use to smoke?
What did she use to call him?