In the previous chapter, we briefly looked at what tenses are and then explored the present tenses of the English language. In this chapter, we will look into the past tenses.
As with the present, there are four aspects to the past tense in English, and each can be divided into positive, negative, and question forms. They look like this:
Let’s look at each tense in turn.
This is a really common and basic part of the English language, and knowledge of it is essential to IELTS success. Generally speaking, we form the past simple by adding “-ed” to a verb. However, in English, there are hundreds of irregular verbs.
So, whereas you might say “I walked” or “She watched,” there are also cases like “We ate” or “They wrote” for which you simply need to remember the correct past form. Here is an example using an irregular verb:
When to Use Past Simple
1. An action that was completed in the past.
– I graduated in 2007.
– She left home two years ago.
2. Routine actions in the past.
– We called her every day.
– He spoke with his grandmother often.
Like the present continuous, the past continuous is formed using “to be” with “verb +ing”. However, as this is a past tense, “to be” is changed into the past (“was” or “were”) while the present participle (“verb +ing”) remains.
When to Use Past Continuous
There are three uses that all suggest an act that was ongoing for a period of time.
1. Describing a past action during a particular period of time (that may have continued after that period of time).
– We were walking our dogs last night.
– I was brushing my teeth at ten o’clock.
2. It describes a longer action that is interrupted by a shorter action.
– I was washing the dishes when I cut my hand.
– She was driving to work when the accident happened.
3. An action interrupted by another action.
– They were listening to music when the doorbell rang.
– It was sleeping when the fireworks started.
While the present perfect uses “has” or “have,” the past perfect simply uses “had” with the past participle of the main verb.
When to Use Past Perfect
The past perfect is used to refer to an event or action that took place prior to the time period considered. Therefore, in the examples above, the conversation would revolve around an event that took place in the past, but the eating took
place before that. For example:
A: Do you remember last year when we first arrived at the hotel?
B: Yes, I remember. Oddly enough, I recall being very hungry!
A: Well, you had not eaten for hours.
In this case, we use the past perfect to show that the eating took place (or in this case, didn’t take place) before the arrival at the hotel.
Here are some more related uses:
1. Describing repeated or extended situations
– We had lived in that house for six years.
– By then, they had studied for a long time.
2. To explain a situation
– I wasn’t afraid because I had expected the worst.
– He felt confident because he had already prepared.
Past Perfect Continuous
The past perfect continuous is essentially the same as the present perfect continuous except that the point of reference is in the past.
When to Use Past Perfect Continuous
This tense describes an action that occurred further back in time than the other events, but that overlaps them.
– They had been studying for several hours when the phone rang.
– She had been working in a hospital before the war began.
Past Tenses for IELTS Writing Task 1
Not only is the past simple incredibly common in everyday speech, but it is also very useful for the writing exam. In particular, in task 1 you will mostly be using the past simple to describe details in a graph or table because they will likely
feature dates that are from the past. Here are some examples:
– Prices rose in the first quarter.
– The interest rate went up between 1999 and 2001.
– French people consumed more wine than Italian people during the period.
– In 1860, the population stood at four million.
You may also use the past perfect in order to explain relationships between points in time with greater clarity. As we discussed previously in the past perfect section, this tense shows an action that occurred prior to another action in the past. Here are some examples:
– After it had risen to forty-six, the total volume then dropped to thirty-eight.
– Sales returned to a higher level after they had fallen to just six thousand.
The other past tenses are not particularly useful in the IELTS writing exam, but can greatly improve the accuracy of your overall English. Therefore, they may come in useful for other parts of the IELTS exam.