Study sheet on tenses to express the past

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There are several tenses in English to express the idea of the past. There is the simple past which describes a finished action. There is the present perfect (have + Past participle) too which is used to link the past and the present and which is only sometimes similar to the past tense of your mother tongue. The past continuous (was/were + –ING verb) describes a lasting action in the past. The past perfect or plu perfect describes an action which happened before a past reference. It is sometimes called the ‘past before the past’. In the TOEIC, there are many questions where you have to pick the correct tense, it is thus necessary to revise all the tenses. Expressing the idea of the past is often the source of mistakes as the references used in English are often very different from the ones of your native language.

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I Past simple (preterit)

  1. Structure

  1. Affirmative

For regular verbs, you just have to add the ending –ED to the verbal basis (infinitive without to). Consequently walk will become walked in the preterit like in:

  • Three days ago I walked from work to home because of the strike.

For irregular verbs, you have to learn them (you could do so grouping them by verb ending rather than by alpahabetical order) and consider the 2nd column of the table. Thus bring will become brought as in:

  • Josh brought Farah her homework yesterday.

Modals as well as the verb ‘to be’ have their own past. Can > could, may > might, shall > shoud, will > would et be>was (singular)/were (plural):

  • Ben couldn’t sleep last night.
  • Audrey might not drive.
  • Should they invite you?
  • He asked whether she would do it.
  • Delphine and Greg were on an island when I was on a continent.

b. Negative

The auxiliary didn’t will mainly be used.

  • Helen didn’t miss her train.

The auxiliary be becomes wasn’t in the singular (I, he, she, it) and weren’t in the plural (you, we, they).

  • Sandrine and Virginia weren’t very honest with their team.

2. Main use

The simple past is used to describe finished actions or facts.

  • Atma arrived in France 2 years ago.

3. Clues

Words like ‘ago, in + date / year / day / past century, yesterday, last’ are usually linked to the need of a past simple as they refer to past situations.

II Modal preterit

It is generally used for unreal situations in the past.

  1. Structure

  1. Affirmative

La seule variation avec le prétérit/past simple est avec le verbe être qui devient were à toutes les formes (au singulier également).

  • I wish I were rich.

b. Negative

Not or n’t is added to the preterit form without forgetting the were for both singular and plural which becomes weren’t.

  • He wishes he weren’t that short.

2. Main used

It is the past equivalent of the present subjunctive which you can find in the study sheet on the present tenses. It is more precisely used for:

  • hypotheses or suppositions :
  •   If you were bilingual, would you learn a third language?
  • If John were grateful, he would appreciate life much more.
  • Regrets or wishes with wish or if only:
  •  Cory is so unpleasant. I wish he were nicer.
  • If only she were on time for once, we could start the meeting with her.
  • Impatience with it’s (high/about) time:
  •  It’s high time they paid their employee decently.
  • Preferences with would rather:
  •  I’m going to give him a piece of my mind. – I’d rather you didn’t.

III Present perfect

  1. Structure

HAVE (or HAS in the 3rd person of the singular) +  PAST PARTICIPLE (that’s either –ed for regular verbs, and column 3 of an irregular verb list).

a) Affirmative:

  • I have met with the plant manager many times to discuss productivity issues of the new assembly line.
  • She has met with the plant manager many times to discuss productivity issues of the new assembly line.

b) Negative:

  • I have not spoken with them this week. = I haven’t spoken with them this week.
  • She has not spoken with them this week. = She hasn’t spoken with them this week.

c. Question:

  • Have you spoken with them this week? 
  • Yes, I have. / No, I haven’t.

Now, let’s review the main uses for the present perfect:

2) Main Uses:

a) Past actions which have consequences for the present. 

  • The production manager has met with the director of the plant several times and spoken to him about productivity issues of the new assembly line.
  • When did the action take place? Recently, many times. 
  • What consequence does it have for the present? The production manager has met with the plant director to speak about the productivity issues of the new assembly line: the plant director now knows and can act. 

b) Actions which started in the past and are still in progress at the moment we speak. 

  • The director has worked at this plant for 10 years.
  • When did the action begin? 10 years ago. 
  • Has it finished? No, the director still works at the plant. 

c) Experiences

  • I’ve never visited Hong-Kong.
  • Where has he gone?
  • Have you ever watched that movie?

d) Events which have just finished

  • She has just finished writing her cover letter.

IV Present Perfect versus Past Simple

There are often difficulties in distinguishing the difference between the present perfect and the past simple.

Look at these two sentences.

  • David lived in Hong Kong in 2007. (past simple)
  • David has lived in Hong Kong. (present perfect)

In the first sentence, we use the past simple because we mentioned a time in the past. In the second sentence, there is no mention of time. We do not know when David lived in Hong Kong, and we do not know if David still lives in Hong Kong, so we use the present perfect.

  • David has lived in Hong Kong in 2007. This sentence is wrong. We do not use the present perfect if a specific past time is mentioned.
  • David has lived in Hong Kong since 2007.                 (Both of these sentences would be
  • David has lived in Hong Kong for seven years.            in the present tense in French.)

We know that David still lives in Hong Kong. Be careful of the use of the words ‘since’ and ‘for’. They are confusing! ‘Since’ is followed by a time in the past (‘2007’, ‘yesterday’, ‘last month’, etc.), and ‘for’ is followed by a duration (‘seven years’, ‘three minutes’, ‘an eternity’).

Mr. Brandon worked on productivity issues at the plant for a year (from 2010 to 2011). Mr. Brandon no longer works on these issues (or perhaps there are no more issues to be dealt with !). We know this because the verb is in the past simple.

Mr. Brandon has worked on productivity issues at the plant for a year. It is likely that Mr. Brandon continues to work on these issues or that these issues still exist. We know this because the verb is in the present perfect. The action is not finished yet.

What’s more present perfect and past simple often use different temporal indicators.

When using present perfect, we often find: ever, never, not…yet, already, recently, so far, just, since, for.

In past simple: ago, in + past date / year / day / century, yesterday, last.

V Past continuous (was/were + –ING verb)

  1. Structure

  1. Affirmative

In the positive form, past continuous is made of ‘be’ in the preterit (was/were) and the verb to which the ending –ING is added:

  • Shella was working efficiently when she wasn’t pressured by Gale Exports.
  • Fiona and Lark were watching a movie when the hospital rang.

b. Negative

You just need to add not or n’t to the auxiliary was or were and make it follow by an –ING verb.

  •  Olly wasn’t studying when Jessica arrived.
  • Fabian and Lara weren’t listening to the lesson when their trainer sent them out.

c. Question

As in any question, the auxiliary was/were come before the –ING verb.

  • Was he being listening to him when they had a meeting?
  • Were we shouting that loud when she came in?
  • Who was I talking about when the elevator came?
  • Why were they singing during the presentation?

2. Main uses

Past continuous describes an unfinished action in the past or a continuing action in the past. When we say : When I was having a bath, someone rang at the door, we say that the action of having a bath is continuous in the past and is interrupted by the punctual action in the simple past of someone ringing at the door.

V Past perfect or plu perfect simple


  1. Affirmative

In the positive form, the past perfect is built with had followed by a past participle:

We had moved to Paris before he studied in Paris.            

b. Negative

Like in all negations, you just need to add not or n’t to the auxiliary:

They hadn’t visited China before they settled in Australia.

c. Question

The traditional word order of questions is respected with had which comes before the past participle:

Had he previously been violent before he was arrested?

2)Main uses

The past perfect or plu perfect is used for :

  • A finished action before a preterit context:
  • You had never seen such a beautiful beach before you went to Kauai.
  • The duration of a past verb before an environment in the past simple:
  • They felt bad about selling the house because they had owned it for more than forty years.

Mastering the tenses to express past notions can be useful notably in parts 5 and 6 of the TOEIC but also in the Speaking and Writing of TOEFL IBT and IELTS, part 1 sentence completion and 2 error identification du writing of TOEFL IBT, MCQ exercises, open close exercises of the IELTS and in fill-in the blank sentences and exercises as well as open close texts of the reading section of the BULATS.

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