Past Tenses in English

The two most common past tenses in English are the Past Simple and the Past Continuous.

We use the Past Simple tense in English to talk about events or situations that are finished. Normally we use a time reference.

For example:

"Last year I went to Spain."

"In 2006, he changed his job."

"She called an hour ago."

We also use the Past Simple tense in English to talk about long-lasting events or situations in the past.

"When I was a child, I lived in the countryside."

To talk about repeated activities in the past, we also use the Past Simple.

"I often went to the beach as a child."

Past Continuous Tense ("I was doing")

There are three main uses of this tense:

1. To talk about what was happening at a particular time in the past and to give descriptions and background information.

2. To talk about temporary situations in the past.

3. To make polite requests.

1. Talking about what was happening at a particular time in the past.

"This time yesterday, I was reading a book."

We often use the Past Continuous tense with the Past Simple tense. The Past Continuous gives the background to an event in the Past Simple:

"When he got home, the children were playing in the garden." (The children started playing in the garden before he got home.)

"I was eating dinner when there was a knock on the door." (The knock on the door came in the middle of my meal.)

We can use the Past Continuous to give descriptions.

"The girl was wearing a yellow dress. She was eating ice-cream and was watching television."

2. Talking about temporary situations in the past.

"When I was living in London, I often went to the theatre." (Living in London was temporary – perhaps I only lived there for a short while.)

Compare with: "When I was a child I lived in the countryside." Living in the countryside was a longer event – I was a child for more than a couple of years. For more permanent situations, we use the Past Simple tense.

3. Making polite requests.

If we want to make polite requests, we can use the Past Continuous tense. This is because we put a distance between ourselves and the person we are asking.

"I was wondering if you had time to see me."

"I was hoping we could discuss a pay raise."

Now try our quiz on Past Simple and Past Continuous!

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