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Past Tenses in English Contrasted

1. Use

Past SimplePast ContinuousPast Perfect SimplePast Perfect ContinuousPresent Perfect Simple**Present Perfect Continuous**
finished action in the pastaction was in progress at a time in the past or at the same time as another past action.the past equivalent of Present Perfecthow long something had been happening before something else happened in the past.
  • result of a past action which 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

Past SimplePast ContinuousPast Perfect SimplePast Perfect ContinuousPresent Perfect Simple**Present Perfect Continuous**
  • last …
  • … ago
  • in 1999
  • yesterday
when
while
no unambiguous ones
  • already
  • ever
  • for
  • just
  • never
  • recently
  • since
  • so far
  • up to now
  • yet
  • all day
  • for
  • how long
  • since
  • the whole day

3. Form

Past SimplePast ContinuousPast Perfect SimplePast Perfect ContinuousPresent Perfect Simple**Present Perfect Continuous**
regular: infinitive + ed irregular:
2nd column of the irregular verbs
was/were + infinitiveinghadpast participle*had + been + infinitive + inghave/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

Past SimplePast ContinuousPast Perfect SimplePast Perfect ContinuousPresent Perfect Simple**Present Perfect Continuous**
We visited London last year.I was watching TV 10 o’clock last night.Before I went to sleep I had watched TVhad been waiting for Susan for 15 minutes when she arrived.I have lived in London since 2000.have been waiting for her for 15 minutes.

4.2. Negative sentences

Past SimplePast ContinuousPast Perfect SimplePast Perfect ContinuousPresent Perfect Simple**Present Perfect Continuous**
We did not visit London last year.I was not 
watching TV at 10  o’clock last night.
Before I went to sleep I had not watched TVI had not been waiting for Susan for 15 minutes when she arrived.I have not lived in London since 2000.I have not been waiting for her for 15 minutes.

4.3. Questions

Past SimplePast ContinuousPast Perfect SimplePast Perfect ContinuousPresent Perfect Simple**Present Perfect Continuous**
Did you visit London last year?Was I watching TV at 10 o’clock last night?Had I watched TV before I went to sleep?Had I been waiting for Susan for 15 minutes when she arrived?Have you lived in London since 2000?Have I been waiting for her for 15 minutes?

** Both the Present Perfect Simple and the Present Perfect Continuous are Present Tenses, but they also refer to the Past. That is why they are listed here.