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.

"Talking about the Past" in the English Grammar

Why Do We Use the 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. In addition to referring to past events, the past tense can also be used in certain contexts to indicate the present or future. Now if you would like to learn more, follow the article.

Single or Repeated Actions That Happened in the Past

  1. Past Simple
  2. Past Continuous

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:

Mary got an F in math on October 13th.

This is an example of an action with a definite time.

Mary was careless.

This is an example describing a state of mind and it is timeless (with indefinite time).

Mary hired a math tutor.

It happened sometimes in the past, again with indefinite timing.

Mary was careless, got an F, and hired a math tutor.

We can express sequence of actions that happened in the past in an orderly fashion but without definite timing.

Mary studied more after that.

The past continuous shows the time span or repetition of past actions or events and the timing of one activity to another, for example, it is used to describe a background action that was in progress while another action interrupted it, which would be described by the past simple tense. For example:

Mary was getting bad scores in math.

This is an example of an ongoing action.

Mary was behaving carelessly.

This sentence is describing Mary's temporary state of mind during a specific period of time.

Mary was taking a math class with a tutor last week.

This example talks about an action with a definite time span.

Mary was taking a math class last Thursday and Friday mornings.

We are describing a repeated action with definite timing.

Mary was studying more after that.

In this example, it's saying that 'Mary' is trying to study harder at least for a while, temporarily.

Actions or States That were True For Some Time in the Past (Ongoing Actions in the Past)

  • Past Simple
  • Past Continuous

We use past simple and past continuous to talk about something that was true for some time in the past. Take a look at some examples:

I was exercising every day, three times a day.

I stayed in dormitory in London.

Story-telling and Narration

  1. Simple Past
  2. Past Continuous

We can use the past simple or past continuous for stories or lists of events. Take a look at some examples:

Sid went to a Chinese restaurant. He called the waiter and ordered lunch.

The other day, I was waiting for a bus when I saw Peter.

Actions That Happened before Another Action in the Past

  • Past Perfect

We use the 'past perfect tense' to talk about the order of two past events. The past perfect shows the earlier action and the past simple shows the later action. So, if there are two actions following each other, for the action closest to the present use Simple Past, and for the action that came before it use Past Perfect.

When the police arrived, the thief had escaped.

Sam's new boyfriend wasn't exactly what she had expected.

Using Present Perfect to Talk about Something That Started in the Past and Continues in the Present

Actions That Happened Before a Specific Time in the Past

  • Past Perfect

We use the 'past perfect tense' to talk about something that started in the past and continued up to another action or time in the past. Just remember, when the sequences of the actions are obvious do not use the 'past perfect tense.' Here are the examples for more clarification.

On the 3rd of November, I'd worked here for five months.

The author died before he'd finished his book.

States That Started in the Past, and Continued up to Some Time in the Past

  • Past Perfect
  • Past Perfect Continuous

This usage is specific to state verbs, not actions. We use past perfect with verbs such as like, think, love, hate, believe, etc. to refer to a state that started in the past and continued up to some time in the past. Take a look at some examples:

Sara had wanted a dog, but she received a hamster.

I had been happy until you started overeating.

We use the 'past perfect continuous' tense to talk about longer actions in the past before another action in the past. This means the longer action has happened sooner than the shorter action. For example:

Sam was very tired. He had been running.

He had been trying to open the door for ten minutes when he found the keys.

Predictions in the Past

  • Past with Going To

We use be going to in the past tense to refer to events that we expected or predicted to happen at some point in the past. Here are the examples:

He was going to study, but he fell asleep.

Plans and Arrangements in the Past

  • Past with Going To

We can use 'be going to' in the past tense to talk about what we planned to be done in the past, but mostly they did not happen. Check out the examples!

She was going to give her speech, but the earthquake happened.

I was going to Rome last summer, but my plans changed.

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 that the time span is indefinite, like an experience at some point in the past. Check out these examples:

Mary has worked in a coffee shop for a month. (continuously)

Mary has been working in a coffee shop for a month. (repetitively)

Ongoing or One-time Activity

Verbs in both the past tense and the 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.

I got lost several times. (NOT I was getting lost several times.)

I traveled to Europe in 2010. (NOT I was traveling to Europe in 2010.)


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
  • Present Perfect Continuous
  • Past with Going To

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
Earlier Actions
Series of Events
Past to Present
Ongoing and One-time Events


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