English words to talk about time and the past

We often use reference words with the Past Simple tense.

ago
"Five years ago I broke my leg."
(Present year 2013 – five years ago the year was 2008)
"She had a baby a month ago."

(also "a week ago", "two weeks ago", but not "a day ago" – instead, use "yesterday".)

last
"Last week I went to London."
"Last year I visited the USA."

(also "last month" and "in the last century".)

in
"She was born in the last century."
"In the 1970s disco music was very popular."
"In those days, there weren't many cars on the roads."

Prepositions of time

We use these prepositions with times and dates. (Remember: we can use these with past, present and future time forms.)

On (with a day)
I started work on Monday.
On my birthday I went out for dinner.
It's his wedding anniversary on December 7th.
British people often eat turkey on Christmas Day.

At (a clock time / a period of time)
I finish work at 6pm.
They ate lunch at midday.
What do you normally do at Christmas?
She goes out with her friends at the weekend. (British English – American English is "on the weekend")
I don't like going out at night.

In (with a century, year, month, season, part of the day)
They got married in 2010.
She went on holiday in March.
They go to the beach in summer.
She goes shopping in the morning. (But "on Tuesday morning", for example.)

Also, in the afternoon, in the evening, in the night:
They left early in the evening.
I heard a strange noise in the night.

For (to talk about length of time)
She stayed for an hour.
He went away for the weekend.

During (at some point in a period of time)
It rained during the night.
They argued during the holidays.

Common error

Don't confuse "for" and "ago".

"For" refers to a length of time.
"I lived there for a year."

"Ago" refers to a point in time – separated by a length of between now and then.
"I moved there a month ago." (If this month is February, a month ago is January.)

Sequencing words

Before
I woke up before the alarm clock went off.

After
After I had a shower, I got dressed.

Then
Then I had breakfast.

After that / Afterwards
After that, I left the house.

Later
Later that day, I got a strange phone call.

When
When I got home, I listened to some music.

Also see our page on Time expressions in English for more ways to sequence events in the past.

Time words exercise

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