The Farlex Grammar Book > English Grammar > Inflection (Accidence) > Conjugation > Tense > Past Tense
What is the past tense?
The past tense is used to describe or indicate an action that began in the past. Depending on how we form the past tense, it might describe actions that happened or were completed in the past, were occurring at the same time as something else in the past, or continued to happen until or near the present time.
There are four forms of the past tense that can accomplish these tasks. We will give a brief summary of each below. To learn more about each of them, you can go to the appropriate section.
The past simple tense (also called the simple past tense, or simply the past simple) is used to express completed actions. It is known as the past simple because it does not require any auxiliary verbs to complete its meaning; its structure is simply the past-tense form of the verb. The past simple tense only uses the auxiliary verb did when it is used in a question or becomes negative.
- “I went to the park yesterday.”
- “I did not eat the cookie.”
- “I called my sister over an hour ago, but she didn’t call back.”
- “Did they mow the lawn yet?”
- “What did you wear last night?"
Also called the past progressive, the past continuous tense, is used to describe something that was in progress at a certain moment in the past and either finished in the past or continued until the present moment.
It is called the past continuous because it uses the past tense of the auxiliary verb be (was or were) followed by the present participle of the main verb (which is used to describe an action that is or was continuously happening).
- “We were working on our assignment when our parents came home.”
- “The phone rang as they were leaving.”
- “She was still writing her thesis at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
- “My roommates were fighting all the time, so I decided to move out.”
- “His memory was fading as he got older.”
- “Sorry I’m so muddy; I was working in the garden.”
The past perfect tense expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past. To form the past perfect, we use had (the past tense of the auxiliary verb have) + the past participle of the main verb.
Because we use the past perfect to highlight two separate points in the past, we often use the conjunctions before, when, because, until, or by the time to specify the order in which they occurred in time.
- “The film had already ended when I switched on the TV.”
- “Unfortunately, he had left his keys in the house when he left.”
- “Construction had gone smoothly until the earthquake hit.”
- “I hadn’t dreamed of living in Ireland before I visited the country.”
- “Had you ever ridden on a tractor before working on the farm?”
- “What had you done that forced you to move abroad?”
The past perfect continuous tense (also called the past perfect progressive tense) is used to describe an action that began and was still in progress in the past before another past action started.
To form the past perfect continuous, we use had been + the present participle of the main verb.
- “We had been waiting for a long time before the bus finally came.”
- “I had been working on the ranch for more than half my life when I retired.”
- “I’d been cleaning all day, so I was too tired to go out last night.”
- “She had been traveling around Europe when she heard about her mother’s illness.”
- “He hadn’t been feeling well, so he went to lie down.”
- “I was covered in mud as I’d been digging in the back yard.”
- “He needed to study harder, because he hadn’t been doing very well on his exams.”
- “Where had you been staying at the time of the incident?”
The Subjunctive Mood
So far, we’ve seen examples of the past tense being used to describe what did or did not actually happen. This is known as the Indicative Mood.
However, we can also use the past tense to describe hypothetical scenarios, conditions, and desires—this is known as the subjunctive mood, one of the Irrealis Moods in English.
We generally use one of the past tenses to describe a wish or desire for a hypothetical alternative, even if it is for something in the present or the future.
- “I wish it weren’t Monday.”
- “I wish I hadn’t agreed to work on Sunday.”
- “We both wish you weren’t moving to Europe for college.”
We can also use the different past tenses to create conditional sentences, which describe possible (but unreal) outcomes based on hypothetical conditions. For example:
- “If I won the lottery, I would buy a new house.”
- “If you were older, you could stay up as late as you want.”
- “If I didn’t live in London, I could never speak English so well.”
- “If she had been there, she could have helped you.”
- “What might you have done had you known the truth?”
- “Had you been listening, you would have heard that the report was needed on Monday.”
- “I might have lost my job if my brother hadn’t been working in the head office at the time.”
Go to the sections related to the subjunctive mood if you want to learn more about using the past tense to describe hypothetical actions, events, and situations.