Usage of past tenses in English


The following article is the second one in the series about “Tenses in English”. The first article was devoted to the Present tense and how it is expressed in the language. Now, we are going to revise all past tenses that exist in the English language. As we all know, the past tense is a form of the verb that indicates the time of the action, which happened in the past. All past tenses in English we call the Past Tenses, however they may differ in duration of an action or its quality: Past Simple – completed action in the past, Past Continuous – long-lasting action in the past or Past Perfect – action in the past that continued to the given moment. Let us examine each of these tenses in English.

Past Simple

This tense is one of the primary tenses in the English language. It basically expresses any action that took place in the past. Students usually confuse Past Simple with Present Perfect. Remember: Present Perfect denotes an action that occurred in the past but has relation to the present, while Past Simple does not have any connection to the present.


Past Simple can be easily formed:

When we deal with irregular verb, we use the past form that can be found in the list of irregular verbs in the English language. 

For example:

be – was

buy – bought

come – came

find – found

send - sent

We form the past tense by adding –ed with most verbs (regular verbs). 

For example:

Work – worked

Play – played

Watch – watched

Look – looked

Help – helped

Do you want to ask a question? Use auxiliary verb did and put it at the beginning of the sentence.

For example:

Did you play football?

Did he work yesterday?

Did you go to school?

Do you want to make a negative sentence? Use did not.

For example:

I did not want to hurt you.

They did not go to Canada last year.


We use Past Simple:

  • If our action happened in the past and is not connected to the present.

Note! The markers: yesterday, last month, 5 years ago, in 1999, etc.

For example:

My mother was born in 1963.

She gave up smoking 5 years ago.

We moved here last month.

  • When we want to tell someone about a chain of events that happened in the past.

For example:

      She cooked dinner, left it on the table, put a new red dress and went out.

  • When we want to describe an action that repeatedly happened in the past.

For example:

When I was at high school, I walked a mile to the library every day.

We ate a lot of fruits when we were on vacation.

  • When we talk about something that was well-known in the past.

For example:

I lived with parents for 20 years.

He enjoyed playing football in a school team.

She ate a lot of chocolate when she was younger.

Past Continuous

We use Past Continuous to describe an action that continued for some time in the past.

For example:

I was watching TV when they came.

My stomach was aching the whole evening.


Past Continuous is formed from the past tense of the verb to be (was/were) and the –ing ending.

For example:

Was/were + verb-ing

I was painting from the morning till the late evening yesterday.

Do you want to ask a question? Put was/were at the beginning of the sentence.

For example:

Was he doing a homework when you came home?

Were they playing computer games when mother got home?

     Negative sentences are formed using was/were + not.

For example:

I was not drinking coffee when he entered a café.

Kids were not playing volleyball, because they lost a ball.


We use Past Continuous:

  • When we talk about an action that happened for some moment in the past.

For example:

She was drinking tea when I came in.

Mike was cooking breakfast when I woke up.

  • When you want to describe a person and express your attitude to this person.

For example:

My brother was always hiding toys from me when I was a little child.

Past Perfect и Past Perfect Continuous

          In order to form these tenses you need a good knowledge of the regular and irregular verbs.


          To form Past Perfect we need the auxiliary verb have in the form of the past tense – had and Participle II of the verb (for regular verbs we use –ed ending, for irregular verbs we use V3 from the list of irregular verbs of the English language).

          To form Past Perfect Continuous we use an auxiliary verb to be in the Past Perfect form - had been, then we add –ing ending to the main verb.

          In interrogative sentences we put had at the beginning. In negative sentences we use not.

For example:

I had been waiting for a train for 3 hours when it was reported about delay.

Had you been playing guitar for an hour when he came home after school?

I had not been cooking.


           We use Past Perfect tense in the following cases:

  • When we want to tell about an action that started in the past and continued up to a given moment in the past:

For example:

When World Trade Center complex was destroyed, Mike had lived in New York for nearly twenty years.

She didn’t want to get a divorce. They had been married for 10 years.

  • When we talk about the past in wishes hypotheses and conditions:

For example:

I would have done you a favor if you had asked.

It was very difficult. What if you had not solved this puzzle?

I wish I hadn’t spent so much time doing nothing last month.

  • In the complex sentences with subordinate clauses of time, which begin with conjunctions scarcely ... when, hardly ... when, no sooner ... than.

For example:

Scarcely had he finished writing his diploma, the supervisor called it a day.

We use Past Perfect Continuous for this:

  • When an action started until a certain moment in the past and continued up to this moment.

For example:

She had been living in Toledo all her life.

The grass was wet. It had been raining for three hours.

Next time we'll talk about Grammar rules: future tenses in English. Was this article useful enough for you to cope with your homework? Or do you still need a help of professionals? If you still hesitate, feel free to contact our expert Editors and ask for assistance!