Grammar Reference

5 ways you can use past forms to talk about times other than the past

1. When a plan isn't certain

  • was thinking of going to that party later.

In this example, the use of the past continuous makes the plan less definite in the speaker's mind than if she had used a present continuous sentence am thinking of going to the party later.  

2. To be polite

  • was wondering if your report was ready.

In this example, the use of the past continous and past simple make the speaker sound more polite than if he had used present tenses am wondering if your report is ready. This is because the past sounds less direct.

3. To sound more urgent

  • It's time we left.

In this example, the use of the past tense makes the speaker sound more urgent than if she had used the present tense It's time to leave. By using the past, the speaker gives the idea that we should have left already.

4. With 'wish' and 'if only'

  • I wish I had more time.
  • If only I had more time.

After wish and if only, we have to use the past tense. Present tenses are not correct. However, these sentences have a hypothetical present of future meaning.

5. With 'suppose' and 'what if'

  • Suppose we went on holiday to Thailand.
  • What if we finished before the deadline?

When we use past tenses after suppose and what if, the situation sounds less likely than if we had used present tenses Suppose we go on holiday to Thailand.

Past simple and past continuous review

Meaning and use

We use the past simple for something that happened and finished in the past. We use it when we say or know the time when something happened. It is often used in stories, when one thing happened after another.

  • Last year, we travelled by jeep across the Sahara.
  • When the car stopped, we all got out.

We use the past continuous for something that happened in the past but was not finished at a particular time. This can be an exact time in the past (12 o’clock, etc.) or the time when another thing happened.

  • It was 12 o’clock and we were standing in the midday sun.
  • Mick was checking the engine when the rescue helicopter arrived.

 We also use the past continuous to describe a scene or situation in the past or for an action that continued for some time.

  • The stars were beginning to come out.
  • The dog was barking loudly.


Past simple: positive

For regular verbs, the past simple ends in -ed. Irregular verbs have different forms. The past simple form is the same for all persons (I, you, he, she, etc).

  • Suddenly the jeep skidded and stopped.
  • Jake thought that we had a puncture.

Past continuous: positive

The past continuous is subject + was/were + -ing form. There are no short forms ofwas/were.

  • Fortunately, we were carrying a toolkit.

Past simple: negative
We make the negative past simple with didn’t + infinitive.

  • We didn’t stay inside the jeep because that was even hotter.

Past continuous: negative
We make the negative past continuous with wasn’t/weren’t + -ing form

  • Despite the heat, Jess and Debs weren’t wearing hats.

Past simple: question

The past simple question form is did + subject + infinitive for all persons. The short answers are Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.

  • Did the helicopter land in the desert? Yes it did.

Past continuous: question

The past continuous question form is was/were + subject + -ing form. The short answers are Yes, I was. / No, I wasn’t.

  • How were you feeling when it arrived?

Take note: spelling changes

In the past continuous, all verbs end in -ing, but sometimes the spelling changes:

  • take – taking   hit – hitting   die – dying