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All about the past tenses – definition, formulas, and examples

Hello, English learners! 

We know you are still motivated to learn English! Aren’t you?

Sure you are! Being fluent in English will give us so many opportunities, for example, you can apply for several overseas scholarships if you can speak English well! 

Of course, learning English takes time and patience, so let’s learn it step by step together, shall we?

Today, we will learn some more tenses! 

Specifically, we will focus on past tense! 

What is past tense? 

Put it simply, past tense is used to describe a past activity or a past state of being. For example: 

  • I wrote a letter to my friend (this is a past activity)
  • I was hungry (this is a past state of being) 

Past tense is further divided into several forms. Let’s learn about them one by one! 

Simple past tense 

Before we start, look at the example below 

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Victoria was the Queen of the United Kingdom, she reigned for 63 years, from 1837-1901. She was born in 1819 and died in 1901. She had 9 children. 

Every word put in bold here is written in simple past tense

So, can you guess what type of situation the past tense is used for?

That’s right! Past tense is used to describe a completed activity that started and ended in the past. 

Many simple past tense verbs end in -ed, this is what we call regular verbs. 

Example: 

  • The Johnsons invited me to their dinner party 
  • She danced all night long 
  • Emma passed her exam because she studied hard for it 

However, there are also irregular verbs.

Example: 

  • Drink → drank Josh drank two cans of coke 
  • Pay → paid I paid for her taxi fare 
  • Send → sent She sent the invitation last week 

In questions and negative sentences, we use did/didn’t + infinitive (basic form of a verb: walk, drive, study, etc) 

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Examples: 

  • I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t have enough money 
  • I didn’t drive to my grandma’s house. I took the bus. 
  • Did you study for the exam?

The past tense of to be (am/is/are) is was/were

Example 

  • He was hungry so he ate a burger 
  • The water was too cold for me to swim 
  • They weren’t happy about the service 

Easy peasy lemon squeezy right?

Alright, let’s move on to…

Past continuous tense! 

As before, let’s start by reading an example passage:

Yesterday, Holly and Daniel studied together. They started at 3 pm and finished at 5 pm. So, at 4 pm, they were studying together. 

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They were studying means that they were in the middle of studying, they had not finished yet. 

As can be seen from the above example, the formula for past continuous tense is easy! 

You simply just have to write subject+was/were+ing 

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The past continuous tense is, therefore, used to describe an ongoing activity in the past. Often (but not always), it is used to set the stage for another action. 

  • We were playing dungeons and dragons when it started raining 

However, we can also use the past continuous tense in conjunction with simple past tense back to back to say that one thing happened after another (in order).

  • As I was walking down the street, I saw Sophie. So I stopped and we talked. 

Now. compare these two sentences 

When Kevin arrived, I was playing the guitar.When Kevin arrived, I played the guitar.

Can you point out what the difference is between these two sentences?

That’s right, in the first sentence, I already started playing the guitar before Kevin arrived, whereas in the second sentence, Kevin arrived, then I played the guitar. 

Easy enough, right? Righty-o! Moving along… Let’s talk about… 

Present perfect tense

Say what now?

You might be rolling my eyes and thinking… it literally says PRESENT perfect…

But hear me out first! To make it easier to understand, as usual, let’s start by reading the passage below. 

Mrs. Greta lives in Norfolk, UK. Her children live in the US. She has not seen them in 3 years. However, Mrs. Greta has talked to her children on the phone many times. She has also seen pictures of her grandchildren. They have grown a lot since the last time Mrs. Greta met them three years ago. 

Now, do you see what I mean?

The present perfect tense is important because it demonstrates that actions or events in the past have an effect on the present. The present perfect tense can be used in many different situations, such as: 

  • To describe an action that is being repeated between the past and the present

Example: She has gone to Japan many times. 

  • To describe an action in the past that is still continuing to the future 

Example: I have lived in Australia since 2008 

  • To describe an action that is still not yet finished

Example: It has been raining a lot this month 

  • To describe an action that just finished recently 

Example: She has just completed her bachelor’s degree 

  • To describe an event when the time was not an important aspect

Example: He has lost his passport 

As can be seen above, the formula for present perfect tense is subject+have/has + past participle 

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Now, let’s do a little review! 

Still remember simple past tense, right? How does it differ from present perfect?

Compare these examples below:

Present perfect Simple past 
Jane has lost her luggage. She doesn’t have anything to wear. Jane lost her luggage and didn’t have anything to wear. 

Got it? Alright! Let’s move on to… 

Past perfect tense 

As usual, take a look at the example passage below: 

Last night, Alexandra danced in a ballet dancing competition. She had practiced for nearly a year before the competition. She was mesmerizing. Alexandra’s family were in the audience. Before that night, they had never seen Alexandra dance. 

After everyone had danced, the judges announced the winner. Alexandra won! She was the best dancer in the competition. Alexandra said she had never practiced so hard before! She was glad they had practiced a lot. 

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So, based on the passage above, what can you infer about past perfect tense

That’s right! 

The past perfect tense is used to talk about something that happened before another action in the past. Using the example above, we can see that it talks about something that happened in the past:

  • Alexandra won the ballet competition last night. 

Before that happened….

  • She had practiced for nearly a year. 

When to use it? 

When you’re talking about some point in the past and want to refer to an event that happened even earlier, using the past perfect allows you to convey the sequence of the events. It’s also clearer and more specific.

What’s the formula?

The formula is subject + had + past participle 

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Now, compare these sentences:

Daniel wasn’t home when I phoned. He was at the mall. Daniel had just got home when I phoned. He’d been at the mall. 

What’s the difference between these two sentences?

That’s right! 

The first sentence uses simple past tense, whereas the second sentence uses past perfect tense.  In the 2nd sentence, Daniel was already at home when I phoned. Before, he had been at the mall.

And now, compare these sentences 

We aren’t hungry, we’ve just had lunchWe weren’t hungry, we’d just had lunch. 

Sounds similar, doesn’t it?

But they are different! 

The first sentence is present perfect whereas the second sentence is past perfect. The action of having lunch finished just now’, that’s why we aren’t hungry now. Meanwhile, in the second sentence, both the action of having lunch and the state of not being hungry were in the past. 

Alrighty! Let’s move along and let’s talk about….

Past perfect continuous 

You know the drill! Let’s read the example passage below

Tom and Sarah had been driving to church before they stopped. They had been driving down a dirt road when they heard a strange noise. Tom stopped the car then they exited the car.

Tom looked at the car. It had been going for half an hour or so. He knew how to fix cars. He had been working as a mechanic for nearly a decade before he moved to the country. Tom got his tools and looked under the hood. It seemed that the engine had been heating up

Tom was able to fix the car and after that, they continued driving. By the time Tom and Sarah arrived at the church, they had been driving for 2 hours. 

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Based on the passage above, can you understand what past perfect continuous is and when to use it?

Past perfect continuous is used to show that an ongoing action in the past has ended.

What about the formula?

Well, easy! Subject+had been+verb ing 

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Past tenses overview 

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Congratulations on making it this far! 

Now, you have mastered all the past tenses! 

….or have you? 👀

Let’s test your understanding using the practices below! 

A. Complete the sentences using the following verbs in the correct form

  1. Queen Victoria …. for 63 years. 
  2. What … you do yesterday? I … at the lake because it was hot.
  3. Who … your biology class last semester? Mrs. Byrne. 
  4. Agatha Christie …. 66 detective novels during her lifetime. 
  5. When …. to choose between a holiday to Bangkok or Bali, she … the latter. 
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B. Put the verbs into the correct form, past continuous or past simple 

  1. Jane …. (wait) for me when I … (arrive). 
  2. ‘What… (you / do) at this time yesterday? ‘I was still at school’.
  3. ‘…. (you / go) out last night? ‘No, I was too tired.’ 
  4. I haven’t seen Kevin for ages. When I last … (see) him, he … (try) to find a job. 
  5. I … (walk) along the street when suddenly I …. (hear) something behind me. Somebody … (follow) me. I was scared and I …. (start) to run.

C. Put the verb into the correct form, past perfect or past simple 

  1. Regina wasn’t at the party when I arrived. … (she / go) home. 
  2. I felt very tired when I got home, so …. (I / go) straight to bed. 
  3. Dan travels a lot. When I first met him …. (he / already / visit) 34 countries. 
  4. Sorry I’m late. The car … (break) down on my way here. 
  5. We were driving along the road when … (we / see) a car which …. (break) down, so… (we / stop) to help. 

D. Which is right?

  1. It was noisy last night. Our neighbors were having / had been having a party 
  2. Owen was sitting on the ground. He was out of breath. He was running / he’d been running. 
  3. I am entering a dance competition next month. I’ve been training / I’d been training for it every day. 
  4. I had arranged to meet Lily, but I was late. When I finally arrived, she was waiting / she’d been waiting for me. She was annoyed because she was waiting / she’d been waiting such a long time. 
  5. Henry and I work for the same company. He joined the company before me. When I started working here two years ago, he was already working / he’d already been working there. 

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