The past is important. It’s where we’re all from. We need to use past tense to describe most of our personal experiences, as well as things that have happened to other people. In fact, there’s an entire academic field devoted to studying the past: history. But language about past events is not just found in history texts. Many academic texts and lectures, including ones on the TOEFL, use past tenses to discuss things that happened before right now.
There are four past tenses, and nine total ways to use the past tense. Understanding these tenses and uses can really help you with academic reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Below, I’ll go over each past tense and its uses, with examples.
Form: Take the base verb and change the word form to the past tense form. Usually this means adding /ed/ to the end of the word. However, much like simple present tense, there are a lot of irregular verbs with different past tense forms.
Use 1: Actions completed in the past:
EXAMPLES: The scientists conducted an experiment. They thought the experiment would prove their theory.
Form: The past form of “to be” (was, were) + verb + ing
Use 1: Describing a past action that hasn’t been completed yet
EXAMPLES: I was trying to fix the car this morning, but I’m not done with the repairs yet. At 11pm, I was still working on my homework.
Use 2:Describing a past action that was interrupted by another action
EXAMPLES: The radio station was broadcasting music when the music was interrupted by an important announcement. I was trying to sleep when I heard a knock at my door.
Use 3: When describing two past events that took place at the same time, this tense is used to describe the longer of the two events. (You can use simple past for the shorter event. You can also use past perfect for the shorter event; see Use 2 of past perfect later in this post for an example.)
EXAMPLES: Marco Polo contacted Chinese merchants and leaders while he was travelling the world. She burned herself while she was cooking dinner.
Use 4: Describing a past action that took place in a specific time period and may have continued afterward
EXAMPLES: The science team was conducting research as recently as last month. Many students were feeling depressed in in February. (Note: In sentences like this, the use of past continuous implies that the activity may have continued after the time period mentioned in the sentence. It also may have stopped. In other words, maybe the team of scientists in the first example are still doing research, or maybe they are not. And maybe the students kept feeling depressed after February, or maybe they felt better by March.)
Form: had+ past form of a verb
Use 1: When describing a series of actions, use past perfect to describe the action that happened first
EXAMPLES: I had gone home; then I read a book and fell asleep. The lawyers had slowly worked toward an agreement that was acceptable for everyone; then they printed the agreement and gave it to their clients.
Use 2: When you are describing two past actions that take place at the same time, you can use past perfect tense to describe the shorter action. The longer action can be described using simple past tense or past continuous tense. See Use 3 of past continuous earlier in this post.
EXAMPLES: Marco Polo had contacted Chinese merchants and leaders while he traveled the world. She had burned herself while she was cooking dinner. (While these two sentences use slightly different tenses than the examples in Use 3 of past continuous, they have the exact same meaning as the earlier past continuous examples.)
Use 3: Describing a past action that was finished in a specific time period:
EXAMPLES: The science team had conducted research as recently as last month. Many students had felt depressed in in February. (Note that these example sentences are almost identical to the example sentences for Use 4 of past continuous earlier in this past tense tutorial. The only difference is that they use past perfect verb tense instead. But this small difference changes the meaning of the sentence. In the past continuous example, the scientists may or may not have continued their research after last month, and the students may or may not have kept feeling depressed after February. However, in these new sentences with past perfect verbs, the scientists definitely did not continue their research after last month, and the students definitely stopped being depressed after February.)
Past Perfect Continuous
Form: had + been + verb + ing
Use 1: Describing an action that began further in the past than other actions, but overlaps with actions that began later.
This use is a little complicated, so read my explanation carefully: Suppose you want to describe a series of actions. Now suppose there’s one action that started before the other actions, but continued even after the next action began. For example, imagine you began to eat dinner, and then while you were eating, you began to think about what you would do on the weekend. You would use the past perfect continuous to describe the action that started earlier (eating dinner) but happened partly at the same time as an action that started later (thinking about what you would do on the weekend). The action that started later would be described using simple past tense. So the sentence would look like this: I had been eating dinner when I thought about what I would do on the weekend.
EXAMPLES: Chiang Kai Shek had been leading his political followers for many years when he and his followers fled from China to Taiwan. She said she had been working in a hospital when World War II started, and she worked there for many more years.
You may notice that past tense is a little more complicated than present tense. If you have any questions about the explanations and examples above, don’t be shy. Feel free to post your question as a comment, and I can answer it. You can also ask me questions through my Google + account, linked under “About the Author” below.
Again, these past tense forms are especially useful in academic English. To practice them, download and complete this free worksheet: Past Tense Worksheet.