Grammar, Tenses

Past Tenses

by VIDYANAND

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In English, there are four different forms of the verbs referring to action in the past.

Simple Past: The simple past tense takes the stem+ed form in regular verbs. For example: ask, asked; reach, reached; pray, prayed; smile, smiled, etc. With irregular verbs, the simple past form is completely different from the stem form, e.g., break broke; sit, sat, etc.

Uses of the simple past tense

The simple past tense is used to refer to an action, activity or event that took place sometime in the past—that is, before the moment of speaking. The reference to past time is commonly (but not always) shown by time adverbs.

For example:

  • He played in the match yesterday.
  • She drove to Mumbai last week.
  • The trees shook violently in the strong wind.
  • Water flowed down the slope.
  • Verghese enrolled for a course in spoken English.
  • Generally, the simple past tense indicates a single action or activity. For example:

The postman delivered my appointment letter this morning.

However, it can also be used to indicate habitual activity or to refer to some activity that happened regularly or repeatedly in the past.

For example:

  • James played cricket when he was in school.
  • I walked to school every morning when I was a child.
  • We often use the expression ‘used to’ to refer to habitual activity in the past. For example:
  • I used to swim in the sea when I lived in Mumbai.

Notice that ‘used to’ is followed by the stem form of the verb (‘swim’) and that it indicates that an activity which was performed regularly in the past is no longer performed at the present time.

For example:

  • As a young man, I used to run 10 kilometer every morning.
  • Would’ is also used to show habitual activity in the past. For example:
  • My brother would make porridge for our breakfast every day.

Both the simple past and the present perfect tenses refer to some action that was performed in the past. However, there is an important difference between them. The use of the simple past shows that the speaker merely thinks of the action as being completed. The use of the present perfect, on the other hand, tells us that the effect of the past action is felt at the present time.

For example:

  • He read the book in 1986 (simple past)
  • He has read the book and can talk to us about it. (present perfect)

Because the focus of the present perfect tense is not on when an action happened in the past, but on its effect in the present, the present perfect is very commonly used without any adverb of time.

For example:

  • I have seen this film.

The time at which the action was performed in the past is not mentioned. But if an adverb showing past time is used, we can no longer use the present perfect but only the simple past. Thus, we cannot say: I have seen this film last year.

The present perfect can only be used with adverbs showing present time.

For example:

  • I  have seen thirty films last year.

Exercise : [1]. Fill in the blanks using the past tense forms of the verbs in brackets.

  • A. Kalidas was (be) a great poet. He lived (live) 2000 years ago.
  • We had (have) a house in Solapur but we sold (sell) it last year.
  • The child broke (break) the cup. He was (be) sleepy and he dropped (drop) the cup on the floor.

Exercise: [2].  Fill in the blanks using verbs in either the simple past or present perfect, as required.

  1. Madan first visited (visit) Nagaland in 1980, when he was (be) only 15 years old. He has fell (fall) in love with the place at once. Later, he returned (return) to Nagaland many times, and has become (become) an expert on it.
  2. My brother is a famous artist. He has painted (paint) many beautiful pictures, but his most famous painting is a portrait of Indira Gandhi, which he painted (paint) in 1980.

Exercise: [3]. Fill in the blanks in the sentences below, using the simple past or ‘used to’ or ‘would’ to show habitual activity in the past.

Ram lived (live) in Chennai for 110 years. He used to work (work) in a bank. He would go (go) to the office at 9:00 every morning and return late at night. He would take (take) his family to the beach every Sunday. (Would is used to show temporary state. But we use ‘used to’ for any extended action or situation in the past. ‘Would’ is only good for actions or situations that were repeated many times; ‘Used to’ is good for any action or situation that continued for a period of time in the past, including repeated actions or situations.)

The Past Progressive Tense

In the past progressive, the progressive (-ing) form of the verb is used together with ‘was’ or ‘were’ (past tense forms of ‘be’).

For example:

  • I was reading a book at 9.00 p.m. last night.
  • My brothers were playing cards when the fight started.

Uses of the past progressive tense

The past progressive tense is used to show that an action was in progress at some time in the past, but is not in progress at the present time. Imagine the following situation. A locked flat is burgled at 8.30 p.m. on a Friday, and the police suspect a person. The next day, Saturday, a police inspector questions him.

  • Inspector: What were you doing at 8.30 last night?
  • Man: Sir, I was watching a television serial with my friend at his house.

Notice the forms of the verbs used by the inspector as well as by the man (‘were doing’ and ‘was watching’ respectively). Here the auxiliary verb ‘was’/’were’, which is in the past tense, is followed by a verb in the participle form (‘doing’, ‘watching’), which shows action in progress in the past.

The past progressive is often used to show the overlap in time of two or more actions, both of which were performed in the past.

For example:

  • I was eating an apple when my friend telephoned.

Here we are told that one action was in progress in the past when a second action took place.

Sometimes two verbs, both in the past progressive tense, are used for two different actions that were in progress together, at some time in the past.

For example:

  • At 9.00 last night, I was reading a book while my cousin was cooking some rice.

The past progressive is used to emphasis the duration of some action in the past—to highlight the fact that the action went on for some length of time. Compare the two sentences below.

  • It was raining yesterday.
  • It rained yesterday.

The use of the past progressive tense suggests that the rain lasted for some time. But the use of the simple past only states that it rained.

Exercise: [4]. Fill in the blanks, using the given verbs in their simple past or past progressive forms.

  1. Last night, while my friend was taking (take) a walk in the park, he saw (see) a snake. It was crawling (crawl) through the grass.
  2. The bell rang (ring) while I was having (have) a bath. I opened (open) the door and found (find) a child sitting on the verandah. He was reading (read) a comic.
  3. When the principal walked (walk) into the classroom, he saw (see) the teacher correcting test papers. The students were playing (play) football outside.

The Past Perfect Tense

Look at the sentence below.

When I met my friend in the canteen yesterday, he had eaten his lunch already.

This sentence contains two verbs, referring to two different actions, both of which took place in the past. The first verb is in the simple past tense (‘met’), while the second is in the past perfect tense (‘had eaten’). In the past perfect tense (as in the present tense), the main verb is used in the participle form (‘eaten’). But here the helping verb is ‘had’ (the past tense form of ‘have’).

Uses of the past perfect tense

The past perfect tense is used to show a sequence of events in the past. If we are talking about a number of events, all of which took place in the past, we may want to indicate which event took place earlier and which one later.

The use of the past perfect tense to refer to an event tells us that it took place before another event. The simple past tense is used to refer to the event which took place at a later time in the past. Here is another example.

  • After I had read the newspaper, I tidied the room.

The adverb ‘after’ clearly tells us that the reading of the news paper took place earlier than the other action (tidying the room).

The same information is emphasized by the use of the past perfect tense to refer to the action that took place earlier. In fact, if the past perfect tense is used in such a situation, it is not necessary to use the adverb ‘after’. For example:

  • When I had read the newspaper. I tidied the room.

In the sentence given above, it is quite clear that the action of reading the newspaper took place earlier than that of tidying the room. Compare the two sentences below: 

  • When I arrived at the office yesterday, the meeting began.
  • When I arrived at the office yesterday, the meeting had begun.

The first sentence suggests that the two actions may have happened simultaneously, at the same time, while the second clearly tells us that one action happened earlier than the other.

Note that the past perfect cannot be used if we are referring to only one action or event in the past. We cannot say : I had met my  friend yesterday. 

There must be at least two actions, taking place at different times in the past.

  • I had spoken to my friend before I wrote to you.

The adverbs ‘before’ and ‘after’ are commonly found in sentences which contain a verb in the past perfect tense. For example:

  • He had locked the front door before he went to bed.
  • He went to bed after he had locked the front door.

In the sentences as ‘By the time we reached the station, the train had arrived’, the verb in the by the time-clause, ‘reach’, represents the action that happened at a later point in time in the past than the action represented by the verb ‘arrive’ in the main clause. The verb representing the action earlier in time always appears in the past perfect tense while the verb representing the later action appears in the simple past tense. You can look at more examples of this below. In each of the sentences, the verb appearing in the past perfect tense represents the action that happened earlier.

  • Father had made himself a sandwich by the time I cooked lunch.
  • By the time the fire engines came, we had put out the fire.
  • By the time Urmila got dressed, everybody had left for the cinema.
  • The children had slept by the time the show began.

Exercises: [5]. Fill in the blanks in the sentences below, putting the verbs in brackets in either the simple past or the past perfect tense, as required.

  • The Sun had set (set) by the time we left (leave) for home.
  • I had seen (see) the Charminar earlier and went (go) only to keep Gopi happy.
  • Abu just  posted (post) the letter that he had written (write) two weeks ago.
  • Before we got (get) to the bridge, the water had risen (risen) above the danger mark.
  • By the time they consulted (consult) a doctor, the man’s condition had worsened (worsen).

The Past Perfect Progressive Tense Look at the following example.

  • Yesterday, while I was writing a letter, my friend telephoned from Mumbai. He told me that he had been trying to contact me for the past two days.

The verb ‘had been trying’ is in the past perfect progressive tense, which is used to show that an action which began in the past continued up to a certain time, also in the past.

Notice that here the present participle form (‘trying’) is used together with the helping verb ‘had+been’. Compare the two sentences given below.

  • Arjun was reading when Tanvi rang the bell.
  • Arjun had been reading when Tanvi rang the bell.

In the first sentence, the use of the past progressive tense indicates simply that one action was ongoing when a second one happened at some point in the past.

The use of the past perfect progressive in the second sentence, however, indicates that the first action had been in progress for a period, continuing up to the time when the second action was performed. Look at the following sentences for more examples of the past perfect progressive tense.

  • I switched off the over-heated engine, which had been running for six hours.
  • It had been raining since three in the morning, and the plane could not take off.
  • The country’s economy had been improving steadily until last year’s drought.
  • The coach could see that the swimmer had been practicing.

Exercises: [6]. Fill in the blanks in the sentences below, using appropriate tense forms of the verbs in brackets.

My father is an engineer. He builds (build) houses. He has been building (build) houses for more than 20 years now and has built (built) about 200 houses during this time. But now he is planning (plan) to change his profession. For the last two years, his friends has been asking (ask) him to take up singing as a career. He sings (sing) well and has done (do) several shows. Before he became (become) an engineer, he had dreamt (dream) of becoming a singer. Father hoped (hope) to succeed in achieving his heart’s desire soon.