The Farlex Grammar Book > English Grammar > Inflection (Accidence) > Conjugation > Aspect > Aspects of the Past Tense
Aspects of the Past Tense
What are the aspects of the past tense?
The past tense is combined with four traditional aspects to form the structures that are known as the past simple, the past continuous (or past progressive), the past perfect, and the past perfect continuous. Although these structures are generally taught as individual “tenses” of verbs, they are actually a combination of the past tense and aspect. While the tense tells us when the action takes place in relation to the time (in this case, the past), the added aspect tells us how the event takes place in time.
The past simple structure is used to express actions and events that were completed at a given moment in the past. Whether the occurrence is of short or long duration, the simple aspect emphasizes its completion. The past simple is formed by adding “-d” or “-ed” to the end of regular verbs, but the past form of irregular verbs must be memorized. For example:
- “They lived next door to us for years.” (regular)
- “I locked myself out of the house this morning.” (regular)
- “We went to a private school when we were young.” (irregular)
The past continuous is the combination of the past tense with the continuous aspect. It emphasizes the progress of an action that occurred in the past, rather than its completion. It is often used for actions that are interrupted by other actions, and it is formed using the past form of the verb be (was/were) + the present participle. For example:
- “They were playing outside when their father arrived.”
- “I’m sorry I didn’t answer the phone; I was driving when you called.”
- “We were eating dinner when my in-laws told us the good news.”
The past perfect is the combination of the past tense with the perfect aspect. It is used for actions or states that began and were completed before another action in the past took place. It is formed using had + the past participle. For example:
- “She had already eaten when she arrived.”
- “We had seen the movie, but we watched it again.”
- “I’d had a bad cold that week, but I went on my vacation anyway.”
The past perfect continuous is the combination of the continuous and perfect aspects with the past tense. It is used for actions that took place before another past action. The main difference between it and the past perfect structure is that the past perfect continuous emphasizes the progress of the action instead of its completion. It is also used to emphasize the action’s strong effect on another moment in the past. Like the past continuous, the past perfect continuous is generally only used with action verbs, not stative verbs. It is formed using had + been + the present participle. For example:
- “We had been waiting for a long time when the bus finally came.”
- “My little sister had been sitting very quietly, but then she started to cry.”
- “I’d been cleaning all day, so I was too tired to go out last night.”
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