- Past simple
- Past Continuous
- Differences between the Past Simple and the Past Continuous
- Verbs in the Past Tense
We use the past tense when we want to share our adventures and experience from the past. In English there are two types of past tense: the Past Simple and Past Continuous. We are able to talk about the past with them. However, they differ in certain matters. We’ll explain them both gradually.
2 Past Simple
Imagine that you are sitting at dinner with your friends and they start to ask about your day. You don’t want to develop your answer, just briefly describe what happened. This is precisely what the Past Simple is for:
- I went to the swimming pool.
- I read a book.
- I finished the project.
We will discuss in more detail the situations in which this tense is used, in the Use of Past Simple sub-section. For now let’s look at how this tense is formed.
2.1 Forming the Past Simple
What do we need to form the Past Simple?
subject + regular verb with -ed / 2nd form of irregular verb + rest of sentence
For those of you who are unsure of what a regular and irregular verb is, we have prepared a sub-section about Verbs in the Past Tense for you at the end of this article.
- We form the negative of the Past Simple by adding NOT to the auxiliary verb DID (I did not play).
- DID does not mean “doing” here, it only helps us to create the negative form.
- Verbs then follow in the infinitive form because in English it is enough to express the past only once (in this case using did):
- I did not watch TV
- Not: I did not watched TV
- The short form here is DIDN‘T (I didn‘t watch.):
subject + did not / didn’t + verb in infinitive + rest of sentence
|I||didn't watch TV||yesterday.|
|You||didn't watch TV||yesterday.|
|He||didn't watch TV||yesterday.|
|She||didn't watch TV||yesterday.|
|We||didn't watch TV||yesterday.|
|You||didn't watch TV||yesterday.|
|They||didn't watch TV||yesterday.|
- When forming a question, we switch the subject with the auxiliary verb DID.
- As with the negative form, the verb remains in the infinitive form:
- Did you watch TV?
Did you watched TV?
|Did I||watch TV||yesterday?|
|Did you||watch TV||yesterday?|
|Did he||watch TV||yesterday?|
|Did she||watch TV||yesterday?|
|Did we||watch TV||yesterday?|
|Did you||watch TV||yesterday?|
|Did they||watch TV||yesterday?|
Very often we come across so-called short answers. For example, with the question Did you watch TV? we might answer Yes, I did.
2.2 Use Use of the Past Simple
Let’s look at when to use the Past Simple:
1) When something happened and also ended in the past
|He wrote me an e-mail two days ago.|
|We went to Spain last summer.|
|They played computer games yesterday.|
2) When something repeats in the past
|When I was young, I played tennis every day.|
|She didn’t come to school again.|
2.3 Adverbs related to Past Simple
In English the Past Simple is characterized by the frequent use of the following words:
We usually put these adverbs at the end of the sentence:
|He cooked dinner for me yesterday.|
|Did it rain yesterday?|
|We didn’t see each other yesterday.|
If we want to emphasize that something happened yesterday, we may put the word YESTERDAY at the beginning:
|Yesterday I texted you!|
- Adverbs beginning with LAST
Other words associated with the Past Simple include adverbs that begin with the word LAST. We usually place this adverb at the end of the sentence. But if we want to emphasize them, we’ll place them at the beginning:
|I gave him my number last week.|
|Last week I gave him my number.|
|I had the football match last weekend.|
|Last weekend I had the football match.|
|I started playing the piano last year.|
|Last year I started to play the piano.|
Many other adverbs are related to the word LAST: LAST MONTH, LAST SATURDAY, etc.
- Adverbs ending with AGO
We apply the same rules for adverbs ending with AGO as for the adverbs beginning with LAST. However, if we want to emphasize them, we put them at the beginning:
|TWO DAYS AGO|
|I was ill two days ago.|
|Two days ago I was ill.|
|THREE WEEKS AGO|
|I got this phone three weeks ago.|
|Three weeks ago I got this phone.|
|A YEAR AGO|
|We started dating a year ago.|
|A year ago we started dating.|
3 Past Continuous
We use the Past Continuous when we want to say that something was happening at a certain moment in the past. It differs from the Past Simple where we just briefly say that something happened in the past. With the Past Continuous we talk about the duration.
Imagine that you are having coffee with your friend and she/he is asking about your date. You want to describe what happened on the date as best as you can and that is why you use the Present Continuous.
- For the whole evening, we were sitting in the restaurant, drinking wine and talking to each other.
But before we explain in detail how to use this tense, let’s look at how it is formed.
3.1 Forming the Past Continuous
What do we need to form the Past Continuous?
Subject + WAS/WERE + action verb with ending – ING + rest of sentence
- The verbs WAS/WERE are the auxiliary verbs. Therefore, we don’t translate them as “happen” or “exist”, they just help us to form this tense. Since WAS / WERE expresses the past, other forms of verbs will have the ending -ing.
- Whether we use WAS or WERE depends on the person we are talking about. We use WAS in the first and the third person singular. WERE is connected with the other persons.
- We create the negative form by putting the negative NOT behind the auxiliary verb WAS/WERE.
- The shortened form is WASN’T or WEREN’T (She wasn’t eating / You weren’t eating.)
- We form questions by switching the subject and the auxiliary verb WAS/WERE.
- As previously mentioned, we come across so-called short answers. For example, to the question Were you eating? we can answer Yes, I was.
3.2 Use of the Past Continuous
Let’s look at the situations when we use the Past Continuous.
We are talking about something that was happening at a certain moment in the past.
|I was playing tennis at 3 o’clock.|
- In this sentence, we say that playing tennis at three o’clock was just happening.
- For example, imagine that a crime is being investigated in the neighborhood and you are telling the detective who is interrogating you that you were playing tennis at three o’clock, so you couldn’t have been at the crime scene.
- If we used the Past Simple: “I played tennis yesterday,” we would only point out the activity we did yesterday, not that it took place at a certain time.
|Were you playing tennis at 3 o’clock?|
|I wasn’t playing tennis at 3 o’clock.|
We are talking about two events that were happening at the same time
|I was studying while my mom was cooking.|
- With this sentence, we are saying that at the same time as I was studying my mother was cooking. Both of these events were happening at the same time in the past.
|Was he sleeping when she was calling?|
|She wasn’t listening when he was speaking.|
We are talking about an activity that is time-determined by the different event
|I was reading when the phone rang.|
- The first part of the sentence I was reading is in the Past Continuous because it is about the event that was happening at a certain time in the past. This time is expressed by the second part of the sentence when the phone rang which is in the Past Simple because its duration is not important – it is just about what happened.
- If we want to emphasize the duration of the ringing, the sentence would look like this:
- I was reading when the phone was ringing.
- Usually, however, the person doesn’t just read while the phone is ringing but puts away their book and goes to pick the phone up. That is why we don’t come across this type of sentence.
- I was reading when the phone was ringing.
|Were you cooking when he arrived?|
- Again, here the first part of the sentence Were you cooking is in the Past Continuous because we ask about the duration of the activity. The second part of the sentence when he arrived determines what happened.
- If we wanted to use the Past Continuous in both parts of the sentence, the meaning would change:
- Were you cooking when he was arriving?
|We weren’t sleeping when you came.|
3.3 Adverbs related to the Past Continuous
The following words are very often related to the Past Continuous.
We are talking about a certain moment in time.
If we talk about a certain moment in time, we use a common time-determination: AT 5 o’clock, YESTERDAY MORNING, etc. We can put these adverbs at the beginning or at the end of the sentence.
|I was writing a letter yesterday night.|
|Yesterday night I was writing a letter.|
If we used the Past Simple, the meaning would be different. It would mean that we wrote the letter, not that we were writing it:
|I wrote a letter yesterday night.|
As we said in the previous sub-section, we can also determine a certain time by the subordinate clause:
|I was writing a letter when the phone rang.|
We’re talking about a time slot
If we are talking about a time slot, we use the word BETWEEN, e.g. BETWEEN 5 AND 6 or FROM – TO, e.g. FROM 5 TO 6.
|I was writing a letter between 5 and 6.|
|Between 5 and 6, I was writing a letter.|
We are talking about two simultaneous events
When we are talking about two events that took place at the same time, we use WHEN, WHILE or AND.
- WHILE and WHEN can be placed either at the beginning of a sentence or between the two events referred to:
|I was watching TV when you were swimming.|
|When you were swimming, I was watching TV.|
|He was watering the plants while
I was cutting the grass.
|While I was cutting the grass, he was watering the plants.|
- AND can be only placed between the two events referred to:
|We were talking and they were listening.|
4 Difference between the Past Simple and the Past Continuous
Let us once again summarize what the difference is between the Past Simple and the Past Continuous.
- When we say “The phone rang.”, we’re only telling you that it happened. We’re not developing it, we’re just saying that it rang.
- If we say “The phone was ringing.”, we emphasize that the ringing has been going on for a while, and you have, for example, been cooking, cleaning or doing other things.
5 Verbs in the Past Tense
English verbs are divided into regular and irregular verbs. If we want to create a past form of a regular verb, we add the ending -ed to them. Unfortunately, there is no rule for irregular verbs, and we must learn their past form each time. For accuracy, the irregular verbs are written in the charts, where the past form is always in the second column.
5.1 Regular verbs in Past Tense
As we have already said, to form the past tense of a regular verb, we add the ending -ed to the verb:
- Watch → watched
- Listen → listened
- Cook → cooked
Change from Y to I
If a regular verb ends with -y and there is a consonant in front of it, the past form is softened:
- Study → studied
If there is a vowel before the end -y, the change does not occur:
- Play → played
Duplication of consonants with monosyllabic verbs
The monosyllabic regular verbs include, for example, to mop. If these verbs end with a consonant (in our example P) and there is a vowel before it (in our example O), the consonant is doubled:
- Mop → mopped
- Stop → stopped
Adding only the final consonant -d
If a regular verb ends with the vowel E, which is not pronounced, such as LIKE and CARE, we only add the final consonant -d to form the past:
- Like → liked
- Care → cared
A common mistake for students is to mispronounce the ending -ed. The correct pronunciation of this ending depends on the last letter of the verb in its basic form.
If the base-form verb ends with T or D, the -ed ending is /ɪd/:
- Want → wanted
- Need → needed
In other cases, it depends on whether the verb in its basic form ends with a voiced or voiceless sound. Voiced sounds include all vowels plus b, d, g, v, z, ʒ, dʒ, ð, l, r, m, n, ŋ, j, w. Voiceless sounds include p, t, k, f, s, ʃ, θ, tʃ.
If the base-form verb ends with a voiced sound, the -ed ending is pronounced as /d/:
- Move → moved
- Call → called
If the base-form verb ends with a voiceless sound, the -ed ending is pronounced as /t/:
- Ask → asked
5.2 Irregular verbs in the Past Tense
As already mentioned, irregular verbs are written in the charts. In the first column is the verb in the infinitive form (i.e. in the basic form), in the second column is the verb in the past tense and in the third column the so-called past participle which we use with the Present Perfect and the Past Perfect. When forming the past tense, we are interested in the second column with the past verbs. It is enough for beginners to only work with basic irregular verbs (to be, to do, to eat, to drink, to write, etc.). Then you can add a few verbs a week. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it seems. :)
Chart of irregular verbs:
|INFINITIVE||PAST TENSE||PAST PARTICIPLE|
|wake (up)||woke (up)||woken (up)|