Past Tenses in English – contrasted

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1. Use

Simple Past Past Progressive Past Perfect Past Perfect Progressive Present Perfect** Present Perfect Progressive**
action finished in the past action was in progress at special time in the past the past equivalent of Present Perfect how long something had been happening before something else happened
  • result of an action in the past is important in the present
  • recently completed action
  • state beginning in the past and still continuing
action beginning in the past and still continuing (focus is on the action)

2. Signal words

Simple Past Past Progressive Past Perfect Past Perfect Progressive Present Perfect** Present Perfect Progressive**
  • last ...
  • ... ago
  • in 2010
  • yesterday
while no unambiguous ones
  • just
  • yet
  • never
  • ever
  • already
  • so far
  • up to now
  • since
  • for
  • recently
  • all day
  • the whole day
  • how long
  • since
  • for

3. Form

Simple Past Past Progressive Past Perfect Past Perfect Progressive Present Perfect** Present Perfect Progressive**
regular:
infinitive + ed
irregular:
2nd column of the irregular verbs
was, were + infinitive + -ing had + past participle* had + been + infinitive + ing have/has + past participle* have/has + been + infinitive + -ing

* past participle:

  • regular verbs → infinitive + -ed
  • irregular verbs → 3rd column of the table of the irregular verbs

4. Examples

4.1. Affirmative sentences

Simple Past Past Progressive Past Perfect Past Perfect Progressive Present Perfect** Present Perfect Progressive**
We were in the USA and visited Alaska last year. Joe was writing an e-mail at 5 o'clock yesterday evening. She had read a comic before she went to bed. She had been
waiting for Jack for 30 minutes when he arrived.
He has lived in Melbourne since 2010. They have been
waiting for him for two hours.

4.2. Negative sentences

Simple Past Past Progressive Past Perfect Past Perfect Progressive Present Perfect** Present Perfect Progressive**
We were not in the USA and did not visit Alaska last year. Joe was not
writing an e-mail at 5 o'clock yesterday evening.
She had not read a comic before she went to bed. She had not been
waiting for Jack for 30 minutes when he arrived.
He has not lived in Melbourne since 2010. They have not been waiting for him for two hours.

4.3. Questions

Simple Past Past Progressive Past Perfect Past Perfect Progressive Present Perfect** Present Perfect Progressive**
Were you in the USA and did you visit Alaska last year? Was Joe writing an e-mail at 5 o'clock yesterday evening? Had she read a comic before she went to bed? Had she been
waiting for Jack for 30 minutes when he arrived?
Has he lived in Melbourne since 2010? Have they been waiting for him for two hours?

** Both the Present Perfect and the Present Perfect Progressive are Present Tenses. But they also refer to the Past. That is the reason why they are listed here.


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