Past Tense

The past tense is a grammatical tense used to talk about something that happened in the past or the way something was in the past. It’s one of the three main tenses alongside present and future, and it has four kinds: past simple, past perfect, past continuous, and past perfect continuous.

What is the past tense?

The past tense expresses actions that have happened in the past. It’s one of the three main grammatical tenses, with the other two being present and future.

The past tense indicates that an event has already happened but can also display a state of being. For instance, something might have been in a different way or a different form in the past than it is today. In addition, it can be used to talk about something we have imagined. Here are a few examples of the past tense in action:

  • I went for a run in the park.
  • This used to be quite a lovely park.

What are the four types of past tense?

We’ve now figured out the past tense and when we might use it. But did you know that the past tense can come in four different forms?

There are four kinds of past tense in the English language. They are the past simple, past perfect, past continuous, and past perfect continuous. The following chart offers some basic examples of each past tense

Past simple I walked
Past continuous I was walking
Past perfect I had walked
Past continuous perfect I had been walking

But what does all of this mean? First, let’s break down each of this different past tense forms and when we might use one over another.

1) Simple Past Tense:

The simple past tense shows that a completed action took place at a particular time in the past. You will also find that the simple past tense is often used when talking about past habits and generalizations. Here are some examples of sentences using simple past tense:

Yesterday, I walked all day.

Ben talked for hours at the party.

I saw a perfect movie at the cinema last night.

Last year, I went on holiday to Spain.

Generally, the way to form the simple past tense is to add ‘ed’ to the end of the verb. However, it is essential to note that there are many exceptions to this rule, as many verbs have irregular past forms.

For example, when a verb ends in ‘y’, it’s important to know that we often change the ‘y’ to an ‘I’ if it comes after a consonant. For example:

‘He will try for the school football team.’

‘He tried for the school football team.’Top of Form

2) Continuous Past Tense:

Next up, we have the continuous past tense (also known as the past progressive tense), which shows that an ongoing action was happening at some point in the past. The continuous past tense is formed by combining the past tense of ‘to be’  with the verb’s present participle.

There are several scenarios in which the continuous past tense is required. For instance, it is used to describe conditions in the past:

  • Everyone in the classroom was grinning as the teacher began to speak.
  • The rain was beating down so hard that everyone got soaked.

Another way we might use the continuous past tense is to describe something happening in the past but interrupted by another action.

  • The wedding guests were dancing outside until the rain started.
  • She was putting her makeup on when her friends arrived.

The past continuous tense describes something happening at a time in the past.

  • At 9 o’clock last night, I was getting ready for bed.
  • I was walking home at 6 pm last night.

The last use of the past continuous tense is to discuss a habitual action in the past. For instance:

  • She was running to work every day about a year ago.
  • Debbie was constantly practicing in preparation for the dance competition.

3) Perfect Past Tense:

The following main form of the past tense is the perfect past tense, also known as the pluperfect, and we use it to talk about something that happened before something else in the past. Perfect past tense helps convey the sequence of events in the past.

The perfect past tense is often formed by adding ‘had’ to the past participle of a verb:

  • When I walked outside, I saw that all my flowers had been dug up.
  • I got to the restaurant and saw that my friends had already left.

Another way to use the perfect past tense is when expressing a condition and a result:

  • I would have been late if I had gotten to school a minute later.
  • If I had left my coat on the bus, I would have lost it for good.

4) Continuous Perfect Past Tense:

The final form of the past tense that we need to mention is the continuous perfect past tense, which you might sometimes see referred to as the past perfect progressive tense. It’s used when discussing an action that started in the past and continued until another time.

The continuous perfect past tense is formed using ‘had been’ plus the verb’s present participle (i.e., the root + -ing). Here are a few examples:

  • He had been cooking all day when his dinner guests called to cancel.
  • The girl had been complaining about the weather for hours when the sun finally came out.
  • I had been cleaning the coat for hours when the stain finally came out.

You will typically see words used with the continuous perfect past tense: when, for, since, and before.

  • The students had been causing havoc in the classroom for ages before the teacher arrived.
  • Amy had been walking for over an hour before she reached her destination.
  • The choir that won the competition had been practicing hard since March last year.
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