The Simple Past Tense and the Past Continuous Tense
The simple past tense is used to describe things that happened in the past or things that were true in the past.
The things that happened in the past may be single, repeated or habitual actions.
- Did she open the letter?
- When did you arrive? I didn’t tell him anything.
- I saw John yesterday.
- She opened the envelope and read the letter carefully.
- He put down his book and switched on the television.
- We climbed to the top of the hill and stood looking at the beautiful sunset.
- The goalkeeper bounced the ball several times and then kicked it down the pitch.
- We usually went by train.
- He always let us play with his dog.
- The earth was once a big ball of gas.
- My parents lived in that house over there.
- Millions of buffalo once roamed the prairies of North America.
The simple past tense always describes events that have been carried out or completed in the past:
- My parents lived in that house over there. (= they don’t live there any longer)
- He always let us play with his dog, but sadly the dog died last week.
- I taught French in a grammar school before I became a journalist.
The past continuous tense is used to describe actions in the past that continue for some time and do not have a stated or known beginning or end. For example, it is used in descriptions of the background situation, of what was going on, when some other action or event took place.
- It was raining heavily (= situation) when we got to the bus-stop (= action/event).
- While John was phoning the police (= situation), the burglar climbed through the window (= action) and ran away (= action).
- We were waiting for the bus by the side of the road (= situation) when a car drove past (= action) and splashed us (= what happened).
- ‘Why has she got ink all over her clothes?’
- ‘She was drawing a picture (= situation) and the pen leaked (= what happened).’
Differences between the Simple Past Tense and the Past Continuous Tense
The past continuous tense can be used to describe a gradual process or development in the past:
- The rain was getting heavier and heavier.
- The weather was worsening by the hour.
- I was becoming less and less certain about what he wanted us to do.
The simple past tense, on the other hand, describes a situation looked on as something that has come to an end:
- The rain got heavier and heavier.
- I became less and less certain about what he wanted us to do.
When it is used with an adverbial phrase of time, the past continuous tense describes something that started before the stated time and continued after it:
- ‘What were you doing last night at about nine o’clock?’
- ‘At nine o’clock, I was watching TV.’ (that is, I started watching TV at some time before nine o’clock and I continued to watch after nine o’clock)
On the other hand, when the simple past tense is used with an adverbial phrase of time, it means that the action described happened, or perhaps began, at the stated time:
- I switched on the television at nine o’clock.
- I went for a walk at ten o’clock. (= I started my walk at ten o’clock)
The past continuous tense may indicate that a past action was casual and unplanned, whereas the simple past tense implies that the action was deliberate:
- I was telling James yesterday about our problem. (= it just happens that I told him)
- I told James yesterday about our problem. (= I deliberately told him)
Just as the present continuous tense can refer to actions in the future (for example We’re flying to New York next week), the past continuous tense can refer to something that, at some time in the past, was going to happen in the future.
- I didn’t talk to Rosemary on the phone for long last Sunday because I knew she was flying to New York in the morning.
- When I saw James last week, he was studying hard because he was sitting his history exam the next day.
Be going to is often used in the past tense to refer to something that has not happened and perhaps will not happen at all:
- You were going to tell me what she said at the meeting this morning, (but you haven’t told me yet)
- I was going to go to the pictures this evening but I’m too tired. (so it isn’t going to happen)
The simple past tense may be used with if only or I wish to express wishes.
- If only we knew where she was.
- If only she were here with us now.
- I wish we had enough money to buy a new car.
- I wish I were you.
The Present Perfect Tense and the Simple Past Tense
The main uses of the present perfect tense are:
- To refer to actions which started in the past and which are still going on at the time of speaking or which could go on after the time of speaking (while, on the other hand, the simple past tense refers to actions that have stopped before the present time);
- To refer to actions which happened in the past but which still affect the situation in the present (while the simple past tense refers to actions that have happened in the past but have no close connection with the present); and
- To refer to actions which took place at some unspecified time in the past (while the simple past tense refers to actions which took place at a definite time in the past).
- I have lived in Edinburgh for more than twenty years. (= I still live there)
- I lived in Edinburgh for more than twenty years. (= I no longer live there)
- She has been a member of the choir for a long time. (= she still is a member)
- She was a member of the choir for a long time. (= she is no longer a member)
- Julia Roberts has starred in a number of films. (Julia Roberts is still alive and still acting and therefore may well star in more films in the future)
- Brigitte Bardot starred in a number of films. (Brigitte Bardot is still alive but is no longer an actress and therefore will probably not star in any more films)
- Creta Carbo starred in a number of films. (Greta Garbo is dead and therefore will definitely not star in any more films)
- I have lost my pen. (and the pen is still lost now)
- I lost my pen yesterday, (this does not make clear whether the pen is still lost or whether it has been found)
- Somebody has dented our car. (and the car is still dented now)
- Somebody dented our car last week, (this does not make clear whether the car is still dented or if it has been repaired)
- I have been to France three times, (this does not say when I was in France)
- I was in France last year, (this specifies when I was in France — ‘last year’)
- Our cat has caught lots of mice, (this does not say when the cat caught the mice)
- Our cat caught a mouse last night, (this specifies when the cat caught the mice — ‘last night’)
Notice that a question in the present perfect tense may require an answer in the simple past tense if the answer is ‘yes’ and specifies a time at which the event or action took place:
- ‘Have you ever seen the Queen?’
- ‘No, I have never seen her.’
- ‘Yes, I have seen her.’
- ‘Yes, I saw her when I was a little boy.’
- ‘Has he ever been to America?’
- ‘No, he has never been to America.’
- ‘Yes, he has been a couple of times.’
- ‘Yes, he went there last year.
In British English, the adverbs already, Just and yet are used with the present perfect tense:
- I’ve already told her.
- She’s Just left.
- Have you done your homework yet?
In American English, these adverbs are normally accompanied by the simple past tense:
- I already told her.
- She just left.
- Did you do your homework yet?
The present perfect tense can be used instead of the simple present tense after conjunctions such as if, when, as soon as, before and until to refer to the future:
In many cases, there is little difference in meaning between the two tenses, though the perfect tense emphasizes that one thing will happen, or has to happen, before the next one does:
- If I manage to talk to John at the meeting, I’ll call you and tell you what he says.
- If I’ve managed to talk to John at the meeting, I’ll call you and tell you what he said.
- As soon as she arrives, you can present the bouquet of flowers.
- As soon as she’s arrived, you can present the bouquet of flowers.
- You can do the crossword when I finish reading the paper.
- You can do the crossword when I’ve finished reading the paper.
- You’ll sit there until you apologize.
- You’ll sit there until you’ve apologized.
The present perfect tense (usually with the adverb ever) is often used along with superlative adjectives (such as best, worst, biggest, smallest, etc) and also with first, second, third, etc:
- That is the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me.
- That’s the biggest potato I’ve ever seen!
- She is the most intelligent person I’ve met.
- You must be the worst teacher this school has ever employed.
- This is the first time that South Korea have reached the semifinals of the World Cup.
- You’re the sixth person who has asked me that this week.
The Past Perfect Tense
The past perfect tense is used:
- To refer to actions or events in the past that happened before other actions in the past; or
- To refer to actions or events that happened before a stated time in the past.
- When he had finished speaking, the audience clapped loudly.
- After the teacher had left the room, the students stopped working.
- As soon as the policeman had gone by, the thieves started to break into the house.
- He didn’t understand what had happened, and he didn’t know why the others had left him behind.
- The goblins knew their way through the mountains because they had built the paths themselves.
- When he found out that the girl had escaped, he was absolutely furious.
Often there is little or no difference between the past perfect tense and the simple past tense:
- When he had finished speaking, the audience clapped loudly.
- When he finished speaking, the audience dapped loudly.
- After the teacher had left the room, the students stopped working.
- After the teacher left the room, the students stopped working.
However, if it is necessary to emphasize that one event in the past happened or was completed before another rather than the two of them happening at the same time, the past perfect should be used:
- When he laid his cards on the table, he smiled. (= EITHER he laid the cards down while smiling, OR ELSE he first laid his cards down and then smiled)
- When he had laid his cards on the table, he smiled. (= he first laid his cards down and then he smiled)
The past perfect tense may be used with if only to express wishes about the past:
- If only I had been with them, I might have saved them.
- If only you had asked me to help you, the job would have been done in half the time.
The past perfect tense is used in indirect speech instead of the present perfect tense when the main verb is in the past tense:
- He has lived in Hong Kong for twenty years.
- He said he had lived in Hong Kong for twenty years.
- His mother has known Madonna since she was a little girl.
- His mother told the reporters that she had known Madonna since she was a little girl.
The Present Perfect Continuous Tense
The present perfect continuous tense is mainly used:
- To emphasize that some action that started in the past is not over yet, or
- To describe an action in the past that has been going on for some time or that has just finished.
- They have been playing football for hours. (and they are still playing OR they have just stopped playing)
- Where can James be? I have been waiting for him for ages. (and I am still waiting)
- What kept you? I have been waiting for you for ages. (but you are here now, so the waiting has just finished)
With many verbs, there is little or no difference in meaning between the continuous tense and the non-continuous tense:
- I have lived here for twenty years.
- I have been living here for twenty years.
- How long have you taught in this school?
- How long have you been teaching in this school?
- My sister has long hoped to meet Elton John.
- My sister has long been hoping to meet Elton John.
- It has rained all week.
- It has been raining all week.
- I have wanted to speak to you for ages.
- I have been wanting to speak to you for ages.
In other cases, however, the present perfect tense indicates that the action is completed while the continuous tense stresses that the action is continuing:
- I have read your book. (= I have read the whole book)
- I have been reading your book. (= I have read part of the book but not yet all of it)
When describing repeated actions, the present perfect tense is used when there is some word or phrase describing the number of times the action is repeated, whereas the continuous tense is used when there is a phrase saying how long the actions have gone on:
- I have asked her several times to keep her dogs under control.
- I have been asking her for ages to keep her dogs under control.
- He has voted Green in the last three elections.
- He has been voting Green ever since he stopped supporting the Liberal Democrats.
The present perfect tense is used when there is some word or phrase describing the result of the action or the object of the action rather than how long it has gone on:
- I have read ten books this week.
- I have been reading books all week.
- We must have walked twenty miles today.
- We seem to have been walking for hours, but it’s only eleven o’clock.
The Past Perfect Continuous Tense
The past perfect continuous tense has much the same relation to the past perfect tense as the present perfect continuous tense has to the present perfect tense, and needs no further explanation.
Compare the following examples with the similar ones in the sections above:
- They had been playing football for hours. (and they were still playing OR they nad just stopped playing)
- It had rained all week. = It had been raining all week.
- I told the police that I had asked her several times to keep her dogs under control.
- I told the police that I had been asking her for ages to keep her dogs under control.
Active and Passive
The description of the tenses in this topic has concentrated on the tenses in the active voice. The passive equivalents of the active past-tense verbs are as follows:
Simple Past Tense:
- Active — I sent the letter last week.
- Passive — The letter was sent last week.
Past Continuous Tense:
- Active — The man was watching the police.
- Passive — The man was being watched by the police.
Present Perfect Tense:
- Active — Someone has eaten all the cakes.
- Passive — All the cakes have been eaten.
Past Perfect Tense:
- Active — She had posted the letter the previous day.
- Passive — The letter had been posted the previous day.
The present and past perfect continuous tenses are NOT normally used in the passive at all.