In the English language, there are four different types of past tenses: Simple past, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
We must know how to apply the different forms of past tense to writing to write more effectively and clearly.
When you first start learning a foreign language, you may have to complete hundreds of verb conjugations. I remember when I started French, I spent many hours in high school conjugating for je, tu, il/elle, nous, vous, ils/elles, etc.
Often it’s easy to think that because you are fluent in a language that you get to skip things like adjusting tenses. The fact is, it’s so natural for us to flawlessly change past tense in our speech that we might not think about how to apply it to our writing correctly.
When we take high-stakes exams, it can become clear how little we understand about past tenses and forms. That’s why it’s so important to understand the differences between past tenses.
This overview of each past tense form and how to apply them to various situations in writing (including making it negative, using it in a question, and what to do about pesky irregular verbs).
The simple past is a verb tense used to talk about things that have already happened before now. Simple past tense makes it clear to the reader that the event or action is finished (as opposed to past continuous, which talks about something that happened over some time).
Simple past also can be used to talk about somebody’s emotional state or how they felt about an event.
When using the simple past, you will most likely need to adjust your verb by adding an -ed to the root of the verb.
As you can see, when you have verbs that already end in an e, you only have to add a -d to your verb to make it simple past tense form.
Simple Past Tense with Irregular Verbs
When writing with irregular verbs, it’s a little more complicated. For some words like beat, burst, and shut, they will stay the same at their root form. However, other irregular verbs are more complex. There are endless lists online to see what irregular verbs forms are in the simple past tense.
Simple Past Tense Examples
|Regular Verbs||Simple Past Tense||Negative|
|walk||walked||did not walk|
|hope||hoped||did not hope|
|enjoy||enjoyed||did not enjoy|
|Irregular Verbs||Simple Past Tense||Negative|
|Stand||Stood||did not stand|
|Read||Read||did not read|
|Become||Became||did not become|
A Quick Note About Asking Questions
When you are using simple past tense to ask questions, there is a formula that you can follow:
Did + Subject + Root form of verb
Example: Did Christine enjoy the play? Where did Christine and her friends eat for dinner?
When asking a question that does not need did, you can use the formulation was/were + subject.
The past continuous tense is used to describe a past event that had continuous action. The past continuous tense formula is as follows:
Past tense of to be (was/were) + verb’s present participle.
For example: As I walked by, the dogs were barking in defense.
Unlike simple past tense, past continuous describes something over a sustained period (Remember, simple past describes a single event).
Past continuous could be useful when describing seasons, extended events, or even global pandemics.
The past continuous form can also describe a continuous event (in the past) that was interrupted.
Example: Everybody was laughing until they heard the crash.
Past continuous tense can also describe parallel actions. For example, if you were working on your homework while your brother was playing soccer in the yard, you would say, “I was studying while he was playing soccer.”
Three final notes about the past continuous form:
- Past continuous can describe a continuous habit in the past.
- Example: He was working out every afternoon before the final game.
- There are certain instances where you cannot only add an -ing to a verb, and it will work with the past continuous form. While these situations are infrequent, you may find that adding an -ed (or -d) will be the correct form.
- Example: He had arrived (vs. He was arriving)
- Past Continuous form creates an atmosphere in our writing/talking. We like to add past continuous details to make sure that the listener understands the exact setting of our story.
- Example: “As I was hurriedly gathering the supplies for the project, he was lazily sitting in the living room chair.”
The past perfect tense is a storytelling tense. This means that when using the past perfect form, you will talk about something happening before another past event.
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This is helpful when talking about a series of events happening in the past. For example, if you went to work in the morning and on your way realized that the bus you like to take had already stopped, you could say, “I was on my way to work this morning, but before I reached my bus stop I realized my bus had already stopped.” You would be using the past perfect tense.
The formula for past tense is easy:
Had + past participle
Remember in the section about simple past tense that to make something a past participle add an -ed or -d to a verb.
Past Perfect Tense Common Uses
It can be challenging to determine when to use past perfect over simple perfect in writing. Most times, if you are describing a series of events, you want to use past perfect.
When you are writing with past perfect, you can describe events that happened before other events in the past.
You want to use past perfect with you are describing a series of events. If you use past perfect on its own without any context clues, your reader may be unclear about what you’re talking about.
Example: “It had stopped before I got there.” You reader would think, “What stopped? Got where?”.
When you are asking a question using past perfect. the follow is: had + subject + past participle.
Example: “Had the bus stopped there before I arrived?”
When you want to make the past perfect tense a negative, simply add not in between had and the past participle.
Example: “The bus had not stopped there yet this morning.”
One Final Note About Past Perfect Tense
The past perfect tense is used to talk about an event in the past up until the present tense. Just like our bus example, our story would end (eventually) with ending up at work.
This distinction is vital as we transition to the past perfect continuous tense below.
Past Perfect Continuous
Just like the past continuous tense, the past perfect continuous tense demonstrates an event continuing through time.
The most significant difference between the two tenses is that the past perfect continuous tense starts in the past and continues through the past to end in the past.
The past perfect continuous tense uses the following formula: had been + the verb’s present participle + ing.
Example: I had been shoveling the sidewalk when the snowstorm started.
There are numerous “clue words” to indicate that past perfect continuous tense is in use. These words include: when, for, since, and before.
Just like the example above, when indicates that the snowstorm has already happened and the story is a retelling of a past event.
Understanding the Past for the Future
There are many things that I know how to do really well. For example, I am a master at creative popcorn topping flavors (dark chocolate drizzle and sea salt is a personal favorite). If you were to ask me the specific steps in making delicious popcorn creations at home, I could do it, but I might tell you the information in the same way that I would make it.
“First, take out the air popper, then melt your butter, etc.”.
While this is helpful, you might be looking for a correct way to do it per culinary standards. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the “right” way to do it, but I could tell you 1000 different ways on how I do it.
The English language can be a similar experience. We know how to convert sentences and words into the past tense, but understanding the explicit rules and forms may be out of our comfort zone.
By taking the time to understand the different forms of past tense, we can understand the tenses in use.
If you are preparing for a high-stakes exam like the ACT, around 50% of the English questions may test you on your knowledge of usage.
This is why you must have an understanding of the different past tense forms (as well as other English usage rules).
ArgoPrep has created practice instruction explicitly geared for you to learn and understand information like past tenses.
Since many teachers are unable to focus on this information at a deep enough level, many students have a partial understanding of important details like tenses.
To be prepared for exams, but also improve your skills in writing, taking the time to understand past tense will help you progress towards a more practical understanding!
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