When referencing the past in English, there are many forms to employ depending on the context, including time references, sequencing, and relevance to the present.
Below are brief explanations of each, including information about how they are conjugated or constructed with relevant examples demonstrating the tense in bold.
- Present perfect: connects the past to the present; used when an action started in the past is unfinished or remains relevant in the present
Form: have/has + past participle
e.g. I have belonged to the association since earning my degree at the university.
e.g. He has returned to his family’s ancestral city to research their history.
- Present perfect continuous: connects the past to the present, used when an action started in the past continues in the present
Form: have/has + been + -ing (gerund/present participle)
e.g. I have been working long days the past month or so in order to buy a car.
e.g. He has been trying so hard to facilitate a family meeting, but his sisters are being belligerent.
- Past simple: Used to discuss past events that are finished
Form: conjugate the infinitive form of the verb, adding -ed to the end; watch out for irregulars
e.g. I cooked tacos for dinner, are you hungry? (cook + -ed ending = past simple of cook)
e.g. I read 3 books a week when I was in grade school. (read is irregular in the past tense)
- Past continuous: One of the narrative tenses, used to set the scene in a story, and to describe continuing actions in the past
Form: was/were + -ing (gerund/present participle)
e.g. I was walking through the park one day in the month of May.
e.g. We were singing around the camp fire when a big, hungry bear appeared out of nowhere.
- Past participles: Used in passive and perfect constructions, may also used as an adjective
Form: identical to the past simple, except for irregulars;
e.g. talk > talked
e.g. read > read (irregular)
e.g. speak > spoken (irregular)
e.g. frost > frosted glass (past participles are also used as adjectives)
- Past perfect: One of the narrative tenses used to sequence events in the past
Form: had + past participle
e.g. I had just finished my dinner when the building began to shake.
- Past perfect continuous: One of the narrative tenses, used to sequence ongoing events in the past
Form: had + been + -ing (gerund/present participle)
e.g. I had been walking along the bay to work for years before the new streetcar line opened.
- Past and Speculative modals: Used to express regret or criticism about the past, discuss past possibilities, and to speculate about past situations
Form: (should/could/would/may/might/must/can’t) + have + past participle
e.g. They should have called mother before making the trip across town for her surprise birthday party.
e.g. If I had known about the problem, I could have done more to help resolve it.
e.g. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to check visa requirements before getting on the plane.
e.g. He may have wanted more information about the promotion before making his purchase.
e.g. I might have rescheduled my vacation had I known the hotel was under construction.
e.g. I must have left my cellular at home this morning.
e.g. I can’t have forgotten my wedding anniversary again!
Additionally, all past tenses may be used in the passive, which is not a tense but a “voice” that emphasizes what happened rather than who did the action.
- Past passive forms: passive forms of each tense are used in situations where what happened is more important than who did it
Form: be + past participle, with the addition of has/have/had for passive perfect forms.
- Infinitive: The UFO was believed to have been spotted near Roswell, New Mexico.
Form: was/were + past participle + infinitive + been + past participle
- Present perfect: A general strike has been called on Tuesday to protest the tax increase recently approved by Congress.
Form: has/have + been + past participle
- Present perfect continuous: Artisan crafts have been being produced in the same houses by the same families for centuries.
Form: has/have + been + gerund + past participle
- Past simple: The package was delivered last Tuesday.
Form: was/were + past participle
- Past continuous: The new floor was being installed when it caught on fire and burned down the house.
Form: was/were + being + past participle
- Past perfect: A nuclear arms agreement had been reached before the war began, easing concern around the world.
Form: had + been + past participle
- Past perfect continuous: The project had been proceeding as expected when suddenly its funding was pulled.
Form: had + been + gerund
- Past and Speculative Modals:
(should/could/would/may/might/must/can’t) + have + + been + past participle
e.g. Mother should have been called before everybody made the trip across town for her surprise birthday party.
e.g. If I had known about the problem, more could have been done to help resolve it.
e.g. Such a stunning swap of a priceless piece of art would have been noticed by a professional art historian.
e.g. More information may have been needed about the promotion before making his purchase.
e.g. My vacation might have been rescheduled if I had known the hotel was under construction.
e.g. My suitcase must have been left on the hotel shuttle van.