Grammar Rule – Past Tenses
Past tenses description with all forms.
Past Tenses – Past simple
Form – regular verbs
Positive statement: I watched, He watched
Negative statement: I did not watch (I didn’t watch), He did not watch (He didn’t watch)
Question: Did you watch?
Neg. question: Did you not watch? (Didn’t you watch?)
It is formed by -ed ending. It is the same for all persons, singular and plural.
We add -d (not -ed) to the verbs that end with -e: like – liked
If the verb ends with a consonant and -y, we change -y into -i: carry – carried, try – tried.
But: play – played, because this verb ends with a vowel and -y.
If the verb has only one syllable and ends with a vowel and a consonant, we double the consonant
to keep the same pronunciation: stop – stopped. The same rule applies to the verbs that end with –
l: travel – travelled.
Form – irregular verbs
All the irregular verbs have different forms: go – went, buy – bought, cut – cut etc.
The question and negative are made in the same way: I went – Did you go? No, I did not go.
We do not use the auxiliary verb did with the verb to be and modal verbs.
Were you a student? Was he in London? I was not at home. He was not happy.
Could you sing? Could he come? I could not swim. He could not stay.
The auxiliary verb did is not used in questions beginning with wh- pronouns (who, which) in case
that the pronoun is the subject of the question.
Who met you? (who is the subject)
Which train arrived on time? (which train is the subject)
But: Who did you meet? Which train did you miss? (who and which train are the objects)
The negative question normally shows a surprise.
Didn’t you know it?
1. We use the past simple for activities or situations that were completed in the past at a definite time.
a) The time can be given in the sentence:
I came home at 6 o’clock.
When he was a child, he didn’t live in a house.
b) The time is asked about:
When did they get married?
c) The time is not given in the sentence, but it is clear from a context that the action or situation finished in
He is 20 years old. He was born in Canada.
Online exercises and grammar rules at www.e-grammar.org/past-simple-continuous/
I’ve been to Iceland. (present perfect) – Did you enjoy it? (past simple)
2. We use it for repeated actions in the past.
We walked to school every day. – And did you ever go by bus?
3. It is used in stories to describe events that follow each other.
Charles entered the hall and looked around. He took off his coat and put it on a chair. He was at home.
Past Tenses – Past continuous
Positive statement: I was watching, You were watching
Negative statement: I was not watching (I wasn’t watching), You were not watching (You weren’t
Question: Were you watching? Was he watching?
Neg. question: Were you not watching? (Weren’t you watching?) Was he not watching? (Wasn’t
The past continuous tense is formed with the past tense of the verb to be and the present
participle (-ing form).
We use the continuous tense for actions or situations in the past that were not completed.
From 10 to 12 I was washing my car. I was in the garage.
(I did not finish my work. It was in progress. I started before 10 and finished after 12.)
The sun was setting. The beach was changing its colours.
(The sun was still in the sky when I was watching it.)
Compare this sentence with the past simple, which is used for completed activities:
From 10 to 12 I washed my car.
(I finished my work. I started at 10 and finished at 12.)
Finally, the sun set. It was dark and we did not see the beach anymore.
(The sun completely disappeared.)
We use it for continuous, uninterrupted activities. If the action is interrupted (something is done in more
intervals or we did more things one after another), we must use the past simple.
Tom was watching TV on Sunday.
Tom watched TV in the morning and in the evening.
Yesterday I was working in the garden.
Yesterday I worked in the garden and on my house.
The past continuous tense is typically used:
1. Combined with the past simple tense to describe the idea that the action in the past continuous started
before the action in the past simple and continued after it.
When she saw me, I was looking at the trees.
(These two activities happened at the same time. I was looking at the trees for some time and she saw me
in the middle of it.)
Compare with the past simple:
When she saw me, I looked at the trees.
(These two activities happened one after another. First she saw me and then I looked at the trees.)
2. With a point in time to express an action that started before that time and continued after it.
At 8 o’clock Jane was having a bath.
(At 8 o’clock she was in the middle of the activity. She did not finish it.)
Compare with the simple tense:
At 8 o’clock Jane had a bath.
(She started the activity at 8 o’clock and finished it.)
3. To describe a situation, while the past simple is used to tell a story.
The sun was shining. Jack and Jill were lying on the beach. Jack was reading a book and Jill was sleeping.
All of a sudden, Jack raised his head. Jill woke up. Something happened.
4. For incomplete activities in contrast with the past simple, which is used for completed activities.
I was reading a book yesterday. And today I am going to continue.
I read the book yesterday. I can lend it to you now.
5. The past continuous can be used instead of the simple to show a more casual action:
I was talking to my neighbour yesterday. We had a nice chat.
(I did not do it on purpose. We just met in the street.)
I talked to my neighbour yesterday. And he promised to help me.
(I did it on purpose. I needed to ask him for help.)
Past Tenses – Past perfect simple
It is formed with the auxiliary verb “had” + past participle (-ed ending for regular verbs, e.g. worked,
travelled, tried, different forms for irregular verbs, e.g. written, made, sung): I had done, I had not done
(I hadn’t done), Had I done? Had I not done? (Hadn’t I done?)
1. We use the past perfect to make it clear that an action was completed before another action in the past.
The door bell rang at last. I had been in the room since breakfast.
(The bell rang at noon. I came in the morning – before that.)
When I arrived there Sarah had already left.
(I arrived after lunch. Sara went before lunch.)
I was so hungry! I had not eaten anything since the morning.
(It was late at night.)
2. It is used to refer to an activity that was completed before a point of time in the past.
In 2005 I had lived in the same place for ten years.
Had you ever travelled by plane before your holiday in Spain?
Past perfect vs present perfect simple
1. The past perfect is often used with expressions indicating that the activity took some time, such as: for
10 years, since 1995, all week, all the time, always, …
When the plane landed Tim had travelled all day.
My parents moved away from Leeds. They had lived there since they got married.
In 2005 Derek started to work in Berlin. He had always planned it.
These expressions are also used with the present perfect. The difference is, however, that the present
perfect refers to events that started in the past and still continue, the past perfect expresses events that
began before a point of time (or another action) in the past and continued to that point of time in the past.
I have been in Paris for a week. (the present perfect – I came a week ago and I am still in Paris.)
When I met Annie I had been in Paris for a week. (the past perfect – I came to Paris a week before I met
Annie and I am not there anymore.)
2. If we use the past perfect simple it does not always mean that an activity continued up to a point of time
in the past. The event can end a long time before the point of time in the past that we refer to.
In 2001 Angie worked in Glasgow. In 1980’s she had worked in Wales.
(Angie left her job in Glasgow in 1989. In 2001 she worked in Glasgow. But we do not know what she did
in the meantime.)
Past perfect vs past simple
1. The past simple is used for actions that happened some time ago. The past perfect is used for actions
that happened before a point of time in the past.
Jim returned at 4 o’clock. He had called Jane on the way back home and now she appeared at the door.
Online exercises and grammar rules at www.e-grammar.org/past-perfect-simple-continuous/
In this story the sentences are in a reversed order, because in reality, first Jim called Jane and then he
returned. If we want to keep this sentence order, we must use the past perfect to make it clear that Jim
called Jane first.
2. If the sentence order is the same as the order of the events, we can use the past tense.
Jim called Jane on the way back home. He returned at 4 o’clock and now she appeared at the door.
This difference is important. In some situations these two tenses have a completely different meaning.
I arrived at the garage. They told me to pay in cash. But I only had my credit card. I couldn’t pay.
I arrived at the garage. They had told me to pay in cash. I paid and left immediately.
In the first case I did not know that I had to pay in cash. They told me after my arrival.
In the second case I was informed before my arrival and had no problems.
Past perfect in time clauses
In time clauses after when we can use either the past tense or the past perfect tense.
We use the past tense if we want to express that the first action led to the second and that the second
followed the first very closely.
When the film ended he switched off the television.
The past perfect is used when we want to make it clear that the first action was completed before the
second started and that there is no relation between them.
When she had washed the dishes she had a cup of tea.
When she washed the dishes she put the plates in the cupboard.
If we use after in a time clause the past perfect is much more usual.
After Zidane had scored the goal the fans went wild.
We use the past perfect similarly with: as soon as, until, before, by the time.
He got up as soon as he had heard the alarm clock.
We did not stop until we had reached the coast.
Maria had finished her meal by the time I arrived.
Before she cut her hair she had consulted it.
Past Tenses – Past perfect continuous
It is formed with the auxiliaries had been + present participle (-ing ending, e.g. working, trying,
writing, singing): I had been doing, I had not been doing, Had I been doing? Had I not been
The past perfect continuous is used for activities that began before a point of time in the past and were still
continuing at that point of time.
Last summer Josh had been renovating his house for two years.
(He started three years ago and last summer he was still renovating his house.)
Past perfect continuous vs present perfect continuous
The past perfect and present perfect continuous are basically very similar. The difference is, however, that
in the past perfect we refer to the point of time in the past, while in the present perfect we refer to the
I have been practising since the morning. (present perfect – I am still practising.)
Online exercises and grammar rules at www.e-grammar.org/past-perfect-simple-continuous/
At 11 o’clock I had been practising for two hours. (past perfect – I began at 9 o’clock and at 11 o’clock I
was still practising.)
Past perfect simple vs continuous
For an action that can continue for a long time we can use both the simple and continuous forms (work,
run, study, travel, sleep …). There is practically no difference in meaning, but the continuous form is more
usual in English.
Stephen was pretty tired. He had worked all day.
Stephen was pretty tired. He had been working all day.
In other cases these two forms have a completely different meaning.
Before midnight Paul had translated the article. (He finished his work.)
Before midnight Paul had been translating the article. (He did not finish it. He was still translating at that
If we refer to a number of individual actions or actions that were repeated, we must use the past perfect
Before the lesson ended they had written three tests. (three individual completed activities)
It was exhausting. They had been writing tests since the lessons started. (one uninterrupted incomplete
See also the past tense and present perfect rules to study the continuous aspect of the tenses.