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Past Tense: Definition, types, and how to use them

Past Tense: Definition, types, and how to use them

When it comes to the English language, there are three main verb tenses we can use to communicate on a daily basis: past tense, present tense, and future tense.

We use past tense to describe an action or event that occurred in the past, present tense if it’s happening at the moment, and future tense if it’s not yet taken place.

In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at the 4 types of past tenses and how to use each of them correctly.

What’s the past tense?

Simply put, the past tense is a type of verb tense used to describe actions, events, or states that have already taken place or happened in the past. Verbs in the past tense typically show that the action occurred before the current moment or before another action that is being discussed. 

Similar to the present and future tense, past tense has four different aspects that help add extra details and context. Let’s take the continuous tense for example.

Eg. He was eating dinner (past)
Eg. He is eating dinner (present)
Eg. He will be eating dinner (future)

#1 What’s Simple Past

[Root form of the verb] + ‘-ed’

As the name suggests, we use simple past tense when we want to describe actions or events completed in the past without any added emphasis or details.

Typically, simple past tense is formed by adding ‘-ed’ to the end of the root form of the verb.

Root form of verb Simple Past (Regular verb)
Talk Talked
Row Rowed
Listen Listened
Climb Climbed
Shout Shouted

However, while this often applies to regular verbs, irregular verbs don’t play by the same rules. Instead of adding ‘-ed’, the past tense of an irregular verb may be spelt differently. To add fuel to the fire, sometimes the past tense of an irregular verb looks exactly the same as its root form.

Root form of the verb Simple Past (Irregular verb)
Speak Spoke
Go Went
Forget Forgot
Read Read
Cost Cost

#2 What’s the Past Perfect Tense

Had + [past participle]

Talking about two past actions and want to show that one thing happened after the other? The past perfect tense is the perfect (pun intended) tense for the job. Also known as pluperfect, the past perfect tense helps to convey the sequence of events in a clear manner.

Eg. He had arrived at the post office before he realised it was Sunday
Eg . She had already finished her homework before the movie started
Eg. Jason realised he had left his wallet at home when he reached the train station
Eg. The band had practised for months before the big performance
Eg. They had never seen such a gorgeous sunset until they visited Sydney

#3 What’s the Past Continuous Tense

Was/were + [present participle]

If you wish to describe an action that was ongoing or in progress at a specific point in the past, use past continuous tense. As the name suggests, it’s also good for describing habitual actions that happened in the past but are no longer true in the present.

Eg. She was studying when the thunderstorm began
Eg. They were laughing at the comedian's jokes all night long
Eg. I was driving to work when I saw a beautiful rainbow in the sky
Eg. The kids were playing in the park while their parents were having a picnic
Eg. He was practicing the guitar for hours every day to prepare for the concert

#4 What’s the Past Perfect Continuous Tense

Had + been + [present participle]

While past perfect describes a one-time occurrence of a past action, the past perfect continuous tense is used to show ongoing action that happened in the past. To tell them apart, simply look out for words such as when, until, and before as they are often used to connect one past action to another.

Eg. She had been studying for three hours before she took a break
Eg. They had been working on the project since early morning when the boss called them in for a meeting
Eg. He realised he had been waiting at the bus stop for half an hour when the bus finally arrived
Eg. By the time I arrived, they had been playing tennis for almost two hours
Eg. She was tired because she had been gardening all day long

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