In English, we use four different tenses to talk about the past. It can be a little confusing to know which ones to use so here is a quick guide.
The past tenses are :
- Simple Past – for actions starting and ending in the past.
- Past Continuous – for actions starting in the past and continuing to the present.
- Past Perfect – for actions that started and ended in the past before another action that is also in the past.
- Past Perfect Continuous – for actions that were going on in the past up until another action in the past happened.
The Simple Past tense is probably the first one you learned and is used to talk about completed actions in the past. The action can have happened recently or a long time ago and the duration is not important. We often use it with time expressions like last week, yesterday etc.
- Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492
- I walked to work yesterday
- John lived in London.
The Past Continuous tense is used to describe actions that began in the past and were still continuing when some other event happened. It is used to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted, to express a change of mind or to set a scene in a story. For example:
- The sun was shining and the birds were singing when Mary woke up.
- We were waiting for the bus when my mother called.
- I was going to study, but I decided to go shopping instead.
The Past Perfect is used to make it clear that one action happened before another one in the past. The tense makes it clear which event happened first. For example:
- John had gone out when I arrived at his office.
- We had started eating dinner when the phone rang.
- I had just put the washing out when it started to rain.
The Past Perfect Continuous is used to describe a process that took a long time in the past. For example:
- It had been raining hard for several hours and the streets were very wet.
- I had been thinking about going out when you called me.
- We had been trying to open the door for five minutes when Jane found her key.
It is also used in reported speech, like this:
- Jane said, “I have been gardening all afternoon.” = Jane said she had been gardening all afternoon.