When you speak or write in English, how often do you refer to the past? Your probably use past tenses a lot to report past events.

In a recent post, we explained the form and use of all four present verb tenses. Today, we’ll move on the the past tenses. Just like the present, there are four past tenses. We’ll explain how to form each tense, and then we’ll explain when to use it. We’ll also compare active and passive verbs in the past.

Simple past

Form

We form simple past by using the past form of the verb. Many verbs form the past tense by adding -ed to the base form.

I walked.
You walked.
She/He/It walked.
We walked.
They walked.

Many other English verbs are irregular. These verbs have unusual past forms, and you have to memorize them.

For almost every verb, the past form is the same for every subject. The only exception is the verb be, which has two past forms.

I was happy.
You was happy.
She/he/it was happy.
We were happy.
They were happy.

Use

We use simple past to describe an action or state that was completed in the past.

I walked to the store yesterday.
He gave me a magazine.
We greeted the visitors.

simple past.png

Past Progressive

Form

We form the past progressive (sometimes called past continuous) by using was or were (depending on the subject) plus the present participle (verb + ing).

I was walking.
You were walking.
She/He/It was walking.
We were walking.
They were walking.

Use

We use past to describe an action that was ongoing in the past.

I was studying all day yesterday.
They were giving me some good advice.

past-prog-1

We can also use past progressive to talk about two past actions that happened at the same time.

My roommate was watching a movie while I was studying.
Beth was teaching grammar, and Linda was teaching conversation.

past-prog-2

We often use past progressive to describe an action that was in progress when another action interrupted it. Use simple past for the interruption.

Duane was talking to a student when the power went out.
When the doorbell rang, we were sleeping.

past-prog-3

Do not use past progressive for a verb that describes a state. All progressive tenses are for action verbs only.

X I was seeing a squirrel in the tree.
X He was believing in himself.

Past perfect

Form

To make the past perfect tense, use had plus the past participle form of the verb. For regular verbs, the past participle is the base + ed. For irregular verbs, it varies.

I had graduated from university by the time I met my wife.
He had traveled to Mexico before he went to Brazil.

Use

We use past perfect to talk about a past action that happened before another past action. That later past action is usually simple past.

2012: graduated from university
2013: met my wife

I had graduated from university by the time I met my wife.

past-perfect

Past perfect progressive

Form

To make the past perfect progressive tense, use had been plus the present participle (base plus -ing).

By 2016, I had been living in Nashville for five years.
She had been working here for five months when she quit.

Use

Similar to past perfect, past perfect progressive describes a past action that happened before another past action. In this case, the earlier action continued over time in the past.

past-perfect-prog

BONUS: Active versus passive

All of the examples above use active voice. This means that the subject of the sentence is doing the action or experiencing the state. Every verb tense can also have passive voice if the subject receives the action. Look at the examples of past tenses in active and passive voice below.

past-active-passive

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