Talking about the Past
What if we want to narrate something that happened in the past? In this case, we will need to know the past tense.
Why Do We Use Past Tense?
The past tense is used a lot among English learners or even English native speakers. Without the past tense, we cannot have clear divisions of time periods. Actually, past tense can refer to even the present and future tense. Now if you would like to learn more, follow the article.
Referring to Earlier Actions
The past simple tense shows the action or state that happened at an earlier time.
Whether or not the action continued for a period of time or was repetitive is not important; what's important is that it began and ended. It can be a definite time in the past or it can be indefinite. Look at the examples:
This is an example of an action with a definite time.
This is an example describing a state of mind and it is timeless (with indefinite time).
It happened sometimes in the past, again with indefinite timing.
We can express sequence of actions that happened in the past in an orderly fashion but without definite timing.
The past continuous shows the time span or repetition of past actions or events and the timing of one activity to another, for example, a background action is described by past continuous, and the action interrupting it would be described by past simple. For example:
This is an example of an ongoing action.
This sentence is describing Mary's temporary state of mind at that period of time.
This example talks about an action with a definite time span.
We are describing a repeated action with definite timing.
In this example, it's saying that 'Mary' is trying to study harder at least for a while, temporarily.
Using Adverbs in Past Simple Tense
In order to know when and how to use adverbs in a past tense sentence, they are categorized into these groups:
- a state (They cannot be continuous. They have no action. No adverb.)
- an instantaneous action (They cannot be continuous. They occur at a single point in time. No Adverb.)
- an ongoing action with definite time span (They can be both simple and continuous.)
- a repeated or ongoing action with indefinite time span (They can be both simple and continuous.)
Take a look at some examples:
We cannot say 'Mary was being an only child.'
We cannot say 'Mary was falling to the ground yesterday.' Because it was an instantaneous event.
Adverbs that show a definite time are used when actions have a specific date or time. Compare the following examples:
Mary was walking to school
The action in this sentence has a definite time, it ended when she arrived at school.
She walked to school.
This sentence has no definite adverb (it is timeless).
Adverbs that show an indefinite time are used when activities or states happen at some point, but not on a specific time or date. The specific time is not important. The focus is on the activity or state itself. These adverbs show time span or repetition. For example:
She was walking to school
Short or Long Time Span
Short, instantaneous activities are expressed in simple tense not continuous. However, we can express them in continuous form with the use of the verb 'keep.' Look at the examples:
was falling to the ground for a while.)
Longer or repetitive activities refer to a process and can be described in the continuous tense as well as simple tense depending on what we are trying to put emphasis on. Look at the examples:
Now, why this sentence is wrong?
Mary worked in a coffee shop
since a month ago.
'Since a month ago' expresses a definite time. For definite times, we can use past continuous. Or we can change the time into indefinite and use past simple. Check out these examples:
Mary was working in a coffee shop
She worked in a coffee shop
A Series of Past Events
If we want to talk about a series of events (one activity that happens after another), we use past simple tense. The focus is on what happened, not when.
The events are expressed in the order that they occurred. Adverbs such as 'first, second, third, finally,' etc. may be used. For example:
If we want to emphasize that one past event occurred earlier than another past event, we use past perfect. Only when the effect of the earlier event on the later event is important to our understanding of the relationship of the two events, we use this tense. For example:
Time Span from Past to Present
The past tense expresses an action, event, or state that began and ended in the past. Definite adverbs such as 'last week, a month ago, and in 1998' clarify the activity happened at a definite point in the past. Check out these examples:
The Chernobyl disaster
The present perfect shows that an action began in the past and continued up to the present and may extend into the future. For example:
The Chernobyl disaster
Duration vs. Completion
Activities that have a process and happen during a period of time without mentioning the end time can both be expressed by simple and continuous time. When there is no adverb, we understand the time span is indefinite, like an experience sometime in the past. Check out these examples:
A completed action has an ending time (a completion time). Usually, we cannot express a completed action with continuous tense. For example:
Adverbs for Present Perfect Tense
Adverbs of definite time are used when actions have starting times and finish times relative to the current moment. Here are the examples:
The period of time has ended when she arrived at class.
The action is still ongoing, maybe she hasn't arrived at class yet. The period of time will end when she arrives at class.
Adverbs of indefinite time are used when actions or states happen sometimes, but it is not important in the time of speaking. In these sentences, the exact time is not important. The focus is on the activity itself. Here are the examples:
Now, can you tell the difference between the two answers:
'What did you do this summer?' 'I
If you are still working at a coffee shop, use the present perfect continuous with "this summer". If you are talking about a recently completed job, use the past tense, or use the present perfect with the adverb 'recently.' For example:
Try to spot the mistake in these sentences too:
The Chernobyl site
The correct sentence will be: 'The Chernobyl site has been closed 'for' a decade. Or 'The Chernobyl site was closed during the 1990s.'
We have to omit "ago" to make the sentence correct. 'Ago' is used with past simple tense.
The past continuous expresses that an activity or event went on for a while and then ended in the past. The focus is on the timing. The action can be repetitive or continuous and may have been a temporary change from the usual activity.
The past simple tense talks about an action with emphasis on the activity and not its timing. The focus is on the activity.
In a sentence with both simple and continuous past, the past continuous shows the background or sets the scene (secondary action) and the simple past is the main focus (primary activity).
Ongoing or One-time Activity
Verbs in both the past tense and past continuous may express that an activity or event was repetitive—happening multiple times. The difference is that the continuous tense places emphasis on the timing but the past does not. (In such a case, context is required for clues about the timing.) A verb in the past tense can be used for an activity, event, or state that is singular in occurrence—happening once.
Now spot the errors in these sentences:
Learning the past tense is one of the essentials in English because it helps us talk about events that took place in the past. In this lesson you have learned:
- Past Simple
- Past Continuous
- Present Perfect
Each tense can refer to past events in their own special way. Now let us compare them with each other. Look at the table below:
|Past Simple||Past Continuous||Past Perfect|
|Series of Events||✓||✗||✓|
|Past to Present||✗||✗||✓|
|Ongoing and One-time Events||✓||✓||✓|