A Complete Guide to the Past Tenses

Introduction

In this previous article we briefly looked at what tenses are and then explored the present tenses of the English language. In this chapter we will look into the past tenses.

As with the present, there are four aspects to the past tense in English, and each can be divided into positive, negative, and question forms. They look like this:

Tense Positive Negative Question
Past simple: I walked I didn’t walk. Did I walk?
Past continuous: I was walking I wasn’t walking. Was I walking?
Past perfect: I had walked I hadn’t walked. Had I walked?
Past perfect continuous: I had been walking I hadn’t been walking. Had I been walking?

 

Let’s look at each tense in turn.

Past Simple

This is a really common and basic part of the English language, and knowledge of it is essential to IELTS success. Generally speaking, we form the past simple by adding “-ed” to a verb. However, in English there are hundreds of irregular verbs. So, whereas you might say “I walked” or “She watched,” there are also cases like “We ate” or “They wrote” for which you simply need to remember the correct past form. Here is an example using an irregular verb:

Positive Negative Question
ran. did not run. Did I run?
You ran. You did not run. Did you run?
We ran. We did not run. Did we run?
They ran. They did not run. Did they run?
He ran. He did not run. Did he run?
She ran. She did not run. Did she run?
It ran. It did not run. Did it run?

When to Use Past Simple

  1. An action that was completed in the past.
    • I graduated in 2007.
    • She left home two years ago.
  2. Routine actions in the past.
    • We called her every day.
    • He spoke with his grandmother often.

Past Continuous

Like the present continuous, the past continuous is formed using “to be” with “verb+ing”. However, as this is a past tense, “to be” is changed into the past (“was” or “were”) while the present participle (“verb+ing”) remains.

Positive Negative Question
was cleaning. was not cleaning. Was I cleaning?
You were cleaning. You were not cleaning. Were you cleaning?
We were cleaning. We were not cleaning. Were we cleaning?
They were cleaning. They were not cleaning. Were they cleaning?
He was cleaning. He was not cleaning. Was he cleaning?
She was cleaning. She was not cleaning. Was she cleaning?
It was cleaning. It was not cleaning. Was it cleaning?

When to Use Past Continuous

There are three uses that all suggest an act that was ongoing for a period of time.

  1. Describing a past action during a particular period of time (that may have continued after that period of time).
    • We were walking our dogs last night.
    • I was brushing my teeth at ten o’clock.
  2. It describes a longer action that is interrupted by a shorter action.
    • I was washing the dishes when I cut my hand.
    • She was driving to work when the accident happened.
  3. An action interrupted by another action.
    • They were listening to music when the doorbell rang.
    • It was sleeping when the fireworks started.

Past Perfect

While the present perfect uses “has” or “have,” the past perfect simply uses “had” before the past participle of the main verb.

Positive Negative Question
had eaten. had not eaten. Had I eaten?
You had eaten. You had not eaten. Had you eaten?
We had eaten. We had not eaten. Had we eaten?
They had eaten They had not eaten. Had they eaten?
He had eaten. He had not eaten. Had he eaten?
She had eaten. She had not eaten. Had she eaten?
It had eaten. It had not eaten. Had it eaten?

When to Use Past Perfect

The past perfect is used to refer to an event or action that took place prior to the time period considered. Therefore, in the examples above, the conversation would revolve around an event that took place in the past, but the eating took place before that. For example:

A: Do you remember last year when we first arrived at the hotel?

B: Yes, I remember. Oddly enough, I recall being very hungry!

A: Well, you had not eaten for hours.

In this case we use the past perfect to show that the eating took place (or in this case, didn’t take place) before the arrival at the hotel.

Here are some more related uses:

  1. Describing repeated or extended situations
    • We had lived in that house for six years.
    • By then, they had studied for a long time.
  2. To explain a situation
    • I wasn’t afraid because I had expected the worst.
    • He felt confident because he had already prepared.

Past Perfect Continuous

The past perfect continuous is essentially the same as the present perfect continuous except that the point of reference is in the past.

Positive Negative Question
had been searching. had not been searching. Had I been searching?
You had been searching. You had not been searching. Had you been searching?
We had been searching. We had not been searching. Had we been searching?
They had been searching. They had not been searching. Had they been searching?
He had been searching. He had not been searching. Had he been searching?
She had been searching. She had not been searching. Had she been searching?
It had been searching. It had not been searching. Had it been searching?

 

When to Use Past Perfect Continuous

This tense describes an action that occurred further back in time than the other events, but that overlaps them.

  • They had been studying for several hours when the phone rang.
  • She had been working in a hospital before the war began.

Past Tenses for IELTS Writing Task 1

Not only is the past simple incredibly common in everyday speech, but it is also very useful for the writing exam. In particular, in task 1 you will mostly be using the past simple to describe details in a graph or table because they will likely feature dates that are from the past. Here are some examples:

  • Prices rose in the first quarter.
  • The interest rate went up between 1999 and 2001.
  • French people consumed more wine than Italian people during the period.
  • In 1860, the population stood at four million.

You may also use the past perfect in order to explain relationships between points in time with greater clarity. As we discussed previously in the past perfect section, this tense shows an action that occurred prior to another action in the past. Here are some examples:

  • After it had risen to forty-six, the total volume then dropped to thirty-eight.
  • Sales returned to a higher level after they had fallen to just six thousand.

The other past tenses are not particularly useful in the IELTS writing exam, but can greatly improve the accuracy of your overall English. Therefore, they may come in useful for other parts of the IELTS  exam.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel.

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