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Past tense is a verb form which is marked by time (tense).
The past tense is used for actions in a time which has already happened. In order to explain and understand past tense, it is useful to imagine time as a line on which the past, the present tense and the future tense are positioned.
Words in English have several tenses, including many common past tenses. The two that are used the most are the simple past tense and the perfect tense
Simple past tense
- "John kills Harry" becomes "John killed Harry."
- "They walk to work" becomes "They walked to work."
Many other verbs are irregular, this means that there is no pattern and no easy way to know how the verb changes. Some of the most common irregular verbs are:
- "I am happy now" becomes "I was happy yesterday."
- "We are eating in a restaurant tonight" becomes "We were eating in a restaurant yesterday."
- "My son does the washing up" becomes "My son did the washing up when I was out."
- "I have some money to give you" becomes "I had some money but I gave it away."
One very irregular verb is "to read", which is the same when written down in the past tense, but pronounced differently. In the present tense, "read" is pronounced like the word "reed" or "seed", but in the past tense it is pronounced the same as "red". In the example below the spelling of the verb does not change, though the tense (and thus the pronunciation) does.
- "I read the newspaper every day" (present tense) becomes "I read the newspaper yesterday." (past tense).
perfect is about completion: actions which are completed. The tense refers to a period in the past. In English the Perfect is made by have + -ed or variations of that form.
- Present perfect refers to a time which begins in the past and continues to the present. Examples: I have lived in Dover since my birth. She has discovered it. She has done it now!
- Past perfect, or pluperfect, refers to an action before another action in the past. Examples: She had not been home since her parents divorced. I had discovered that he had taken my key.
- Present continuous progressive perfect: She has been discovering that grammar is not so easy as she thought...
- Past continuous progressive perfect: They had been finding it difficult.
- Future perfect refers to an event before a future event. Examples: She will have finished her report for the next board meeting. By now she will have discovered the key.
- Future continuous progressive perfect: I'm sure she will have been looking for that.
Verb endings: -ed = finished; -ing = continuing
- Seeley, John. (2009). Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation, p. 109.
- Sangmeister, Lisa. (2009). Past Tense in English: From OE to PDE, p. 11.
- McArthur, Tom 1992. The Oxford companion to the English language. Oxford #University Press.