Reading, Speaking, Listening, Writing: they can all be difficult in English. To be a good English communicator, you must to all 4 of them. And you in all 4 of them you will need the past tense in English.
As part of our Narratives Series, we’re going to tell you “everything you wanted to know about the past tense in English”, with our video and text.
Also, you’ll find lots of exercises where you can practice the past tense.

First of all, let’s understand: what is the past tense?

The past tense in English

In any language, we use 3 tenses:
– we use the present tense when we talk about today, or every day. (In English, for example, “I live in New York.”)
– we use the future tense to talk about things after today. (For example, “I live in New York today, but I will live in London in 2020.”)
– we use the past tense to talk about everything before the present. (For example, “I lived in Sydney in 2012.”)

So, there are 3 tenses. In each tense, there are many forms. You can see how this works in the future tense in another English42 post. (For example, “It will rain tomorrow, but I’m going to go to the beach.”)
In the present tense, there are many forms too. In our video today, we look at the different forms we use to talk about things in the past.

In our new #QuickEnglish video, you can learn about the different forms we use in the past tense. There is a lot of information in it! When you’re finished the video, continue reading and we will give you a little more information about each form.

Here is the picture from the video, where you can see the different forms we use in the past tense in English. Click on the picture to download it for free! Then we will tell you more about each of the forms…

past tense in english

The Past Simple form

When we talk about the past, we use the past simple form most of the time. So, it’s very important to know how this works.

Firstly, the meaning. When we talk about the past, we usually need 1 specific event or action. For example: “I live in Sydney in 2012” or “Jack and Rose fall in love.” These sentences are in the present tense and this is wrong, because they happened in the past. So, we will change the verb (live, fall) to the past simple form:

“I lived in Sydney in 2012.”
“Jack and Rose fell in love.”

These verbs look very different: “live” becomes “lived” and “fall” becomes “fell“. Why?
Well, in English, there are regular verbs (like “live”) and irregular verbs. (like “fall”)
This is another subject, and you can find a free lesson about them at this page. (It’s a good idea to study this before we continue, so check out the page!)

The Continuous form

Sometimes, we talk about an event which took a long time in the past. Take this sentence for example:

“I lived in Sydney in 2012.”

This sentence is OK. It’s not wrong – the grammar is fine, and English speakers understand it. But it’s not the best sentence to use. When you live in a city, you usually live there for a long time. It is better to use the continuous form: add the verb to be (which, in the past, is was or were) and put -ing at the end of the verb. The sentence now becomes:

“I was living in Sydney in 2012.”

Soon, we will see how the continuous form is possible with every other part of the past tense. We change the verb to be and the sentence can become more advanced, with a more specific meaning. First, let’s look at the next form: the past perfect.

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The Past Perfect form

If you’re using the past tense in English, it’s okay to use only the past simple and the past continuous – but these tenses are Elementary or Pre-Intermediate English, and it can sound boring.

Fluent English speakers need more. This is where we need the past perfect form. Here’s an example:

“Before I lived in Sydney, I had lived in Dublin.”

The past perfect describes an event before another event in the past. In the video we said that “Jack and Rose had gone to a party”. This was before they fell in love. If you use the past perfect form, there must be another event in the past simple. This is the meaning of the form.

We make the form with 2 parts: the verb to have in the past (= “had”) and the past participle. Again, we need to know the difference between regular and irregular verbs in English to use this correctly.

Again, we can use the continuous form to talk about a long event in the past. So, for example: Jack and Rose had been dancing.”

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The past with “would”

If you use the past simple, the past continuous and the past perfect, you are becoming an Advanced speaker of English. Stop here if you like! However, if you want to learn more, you can sometimes use would.

Using would is the opposite of the past perfect: we use it to describe an event after another event in the past. Both events are in the past. Here is an example:

“After I lived in Dublin, I would live in Sydney.”
“The Titanic would sink.”

This is not so common in English. Certainly, the past simple, continuous and perfect are much more popular. English speakers sometimes use would, and you may find it in advanced English exams.

We are now in Advanced English, and using many different forms to make our past tenses more fluent and advanced. So, let’s look at one more way to do this: the passive voice.

The Passive Voice in the past

The passive voice is not easy, but it’s very common in English. Why do we use it? Well, there are 2 reasons:

  • We’re describing an action and we don’t know who did it. (For example, “A man was killed in the city center.” We don’t know who killed him.);
    OR
  • The person who did the action isn’t important (“A man was arrested for the murder.” The police arrested him, but this isn’t important.)

So, sometimes we need to use the passive voice (if we don’t know who did it) and sometimes it’s more fluent to use the passive voice (if the person isn’t important)

We make the passive voice with 2 parts: the verb to be (in the correct tense) and the past participle. So, in our video, we looked at 3 examples of this:

“Rose was held by Jack.”
“Rose had been taken to the dance by Jack.”
“The Titanic would be hit by an iceberg.”

Continue learning the past tense

English42 is the home of online English, so if you want to learn more about the past tense you’re in the perfect place! We offer 1-to-1 lessons and help with English exams, so if you’re serious about improving your English, we’re serious about helping you. Get in contact!

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More free learning

You can see the past tense everywhere. If you know the past tense well, you can succeed in many English situations, and you can succeed in many of our English exercises. We have general English, Business English, IELTS exam and Cambridge exams where you can test yourself. Try it today!

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