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Use of tenses: Talking about the past

The past simple is used:

■ to talk about an action that took place in the past:
  • He got up, paid the bill and left.
  • I didn’t read the letter, I just gave it to Lee.
  • What did you say?

NOTE Often a specific time in the past is mentioned:
  • Did you speak to Amy yesterday?

■ to talk about a state that continued for some time, but that is now finished:
  • I went to school in Scotland.
  • Did she really work there for ten years?

■ to talk about actions that happened regularly in the past:
  • I often played tennis with her.
  • She always won.
  • They never went to the cinema when they lived in the country.

The present perfect is used:

■ to talk about something that happened during a period of time that is not yet finished:

  • The train has been late three times this week.
  • He still hasn’t visited her.

■ when the time in the past is not mentioned, or is not important:
  • He’s written a book.
  • We’ve bought a new computer.

■ when the action finished in the past, but the effect is still felt in the present:
  • He’s lost his calculator (and he still hasn’t found it).

■ with for and since to show the duration of an action or state up until the present:
  • I have worked here since 1998.
  • She hasn’t bought any new clothes for years.

■ in British English, with just, ever, already and yet:
  • I’ve just arrived.
  • Have you ever been here before?
  • He’s already packed his suitcases.
  • Haven’t you finished yet?

NOTE In informal American English the past simple can be used with just, already and yet:

  • He already packed his suitcases.
  • Didn’t you finish yet?

The present perfect progressive is used:

■ with for and since to talk about an activity that started in the past and is still happening:
  • I’ve been working since eight o’clock.
  • He’s been learning English for several years.

■ to talk about an activity that has finished, but whose results are visible now:
  • My hands are dirty because I’ve been gardening.

The past progressive is used:

■ to talk about an action that was in progress at a particular time in the past:

  • What were you doing in the summer of 1999?
  • Was it raining when you left home?

■ to talk about something that was already in progress when something else happened. (You use the past simple for the action that interrupts it):

  • The doorbell rang while they were having breakfast.

NOTE As with the present progressive, this tense cannot be used with ‘state’ verbs:
  • The fresh bread smelled wonderful (not was smelling).

The past perfect is used:

■ to talk about something that happened before another action in the past:
  • I had already met Ed before he came to Bath.
  • When I got to the station, the train had left.

The past perfect progressive is used:

■ with for or since to talk about an activity that started at a time further back in the past than something else:
  • She hadn’t been living there very long when she met Mark.

■ to talk about an activity that had a result in the past:
  • My hands were dirty because I had been gardening.

    © Oxford University Press
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