Past Tense: 4 Types & When to Use (with Examples)

The past tense is one of the must-known tenses in any language, such as English language, Dutch language, Australian language, etc. It is a grammatical feature that enables us to describe events, actions, or states that have occurred in the past, distinguishing them from present tense and future tense. This tense comes with 4 primary types to express the context in various situations. 

Although they are pretty complicated for English learners to master, our article will explain them in an easier way. Let’s keep scrolling down to discover this tense.

What Is Past Tense?

This tense in English is a common grammatical tense. As the name implies, its function is to describe a situation or action that happened in the past. Depending on the characteristics that discuss the completion of the action or occurrence, the tense has divided into 4 primary types:

  • Past simple 
  • Past continuous
  • Past perfect
  • Past perfect continuous


Before going to an in-depth lesson about these 4 types of past tense, let’s have some general examples for a basic understanding of “the past in English”:

  • When I was a kid, I hated learning how to cook with my mom.
  • Last year, my friends and I traveled to Paris – the capital of France. It was exciting and memorable!
  • I lost the cute notebook that my teacher gave me when I was in American language class!
  • When I was running down the street, a motorcycle suddenly hit me.
  • I didn’t know how to play cards correctly. 

Verb In Past Tense

Regular Verb

When a verb follows the standard rules to create its simple past tense and past participle, it is called “a regular verb”. A verb whose conjugation follows a different pattern is called an irregular verb.

Let’s check spelling rules for regular verbs’ past forms:

Add suffix “ed” to most verbs:

  • If the verb has one syllable ends with “consonant-vowel-consonant”, remember to double its final consonant before adding “ed”:

Stop -> stopped

  • If the word more than 2 syllables are stressed at the final syllable and end with consonant-vowel-consonant, double the last letter before adding “ed”:

Occur -> occurred

  • If a longer verb stresses at the first syllable and ends with consonant-vowel-consonant, simply add “ed”:

travel -> traveled

  • If the ending consonant is “w,” “x,” or “y”, just add “ed”:

Fix -> fixed 

Play -> played

  • If the last letter of the word is “e”, only add “d”:

Puzzle -> puzzled

  • If the verbs end with the formula “consonant + y”, remove “y” and add “ied”:

Cry -> cried

Irregular Verb

The regular verbs follow a standard to make past forms and past participle forms. Moreover, these two forms of regular verbs are the same. Meanwhile, irregular verbs have no rule and are different between these two verb forms. 

There are about 200 common irregular verbs in English. The only way to know how to change irregular verbs is to learn them by heart.

Here are a list of irregular verbs:

past tense

past tense 2

past tense 3

Modal Verbs

Modal verbs can also be used in the past tense. Here are the ways to transfer them into past forms:

  • Can -> could
  • Will -> would 
  • May -> might 
  • Must -> had to 

Some Verbs Are Confused Between Regular And Irregular Verbs

For those who are new to English, it is quite difficult to memorize and distinguish between regular and irregular verbs. Below, we have compiled some confusing past tense verbs and a guide to help you use them:

Arise Lose
Awake Mean
Bear meet
Beat Mistake
Bet Open
Bite Override
Bleed Pet
Blink Pry
Break Put
Breathe Rain
breed Receive
Bring Reset
Broadcast Rewind
Build Ride
Bury Ring
Buy Rise
Call Run
Carry Scream
Cast See
Catch Seek
Clean Send
Cost Set
Creep Sew
Crochet Shake
Cum Shine
Deal Shoot
Demo show
Dive Shut
Drag Shy
draw Sing
Dream Sitting
Driven Skip
Drown Slay
Dry Sleep
Ear Slide
Feed Slip
fight Smell
Fit Smite
Flee Sneak
Fly Sow
Forsake Speak
Glide Speed
glow Spin
Go Spit
Grab Spring
Greet Squeeze
grind Steal
Hang Stink
Hear Stop
Hide Strike
Hit Strive
Hop sweat
Hope Swim
Input Swing
Keep Sync
Kneel Tear
Knit Think
Know Throw
Laugh Upset
leaf Walk
Leaving Weave
Lend Work

4 Main Types Of Past Tense

1. Past Simple

What Is It?

This tense is used to describe or talk about states or actions that occurred in the past and are also completed and finished (not continue happening to the present).

A simple past can also be used to discuss a previous state of being, such as how someone felt about something. This is frequently stated using an adjective, noun, or prepositional phrase along with the simple past tense of the verb to be.

In short, we summarize 4 usages of this tense:

  • Express finished actions in the past.
  • Describe a series of actions finished in the past.
  • Talk about habits in the past.
  • For stative verb (be, have-own, dislike, need, wish)

Time Signal 

Here are some time references of this tense:

  • Yesterday
  • Last week/month/day/year
  • A (an) month/day/week/hour ago
  • In 2010 (the year of the past)
  • This morning



The positive form is the easiest and the original formula for negative sentences and questions. Let’s learn how to create a positive sentence in the simple past tense:

To be: S + was/were + …

  • If the subject is I/he/she/it/singular noun or uncountable noun, use “was”.

Ex: He was happy when she came.

  • If the subject is we/you or a plural noun, use “were.

Ex: We were friends.

Verbs: S + V2 + …

Ex: She came home 2 hours ago.


To be: S + was not (wasn’t)/ were not (weren’t) + …

Ex: We weren’t excited about the festival.

Verbs: S + did not (didn’t) + Verb (base form)

Ex: I didn’t know that many people were there. 

WH questions:

To be: A WH question words + was/were + S + …?

Ex: How was he last night?

Verb: A WH question word + did + S + Verb (base form) + …?

Ex: When did you travel to France?

Yes/No questions:

To be: Was/Were + S + …?

Ex: Was he happy with the result?

Verb: Did + S + Verb (base form) + …?

Ex: Did you go back to school this morning?

More Examples

  • He cried a lot when his girlfriend went abroad.
  • I played tennis once a week when I was 19.
  • We drank too much last night.
  • What did he say when you met him?
  • Did we travel to Italy two weeks ago?
  • He hated eating broccoli.
  • He had a lot of homework last week. 
  • Did you cry? 
  • Was the show interesting?
  • When I was at home last night, a dog ran to my house. 

2. Past Continuous

What Is It?

This tense, commonly referred to as the past progressive tense, describes an ongoing activity or situation that already occurred. The past continuous tense is created by fusing the present participle of the verb (V-ing) with the past tense of to be (was/were).

This tense can also be used to describe a prior event that was ongoing until something else interfered with it.

In detail, here are 4 common usages of this tense:

  • Talk about a parallel action.
  • Express what someone was doing at a particular point of time.
  • Describe an interrupted action in the past.
  • Describe irritation and repetition.

Time Signal

Two popular signals of this tense are while and when. Moreover, you may consider using this tense if the sentence has a specific time in the past, such as 8 PM or 10 AM.



S + was/were + V-ing 

  • If the subject is I/he/she/it/singular noun or uncountable noun, use “was”.

Ex: He was running in the park at 7 PM last night. 

  • If the subject is we/you or a plural noun, use “were.

Ex: We were playing video games when my mom came back home.


To be: S + was not (wasn’t)/ were not (weren’t) + V-ing …

Ex: I wasn’t eating when my boyfriend called me.

WH questions:

To be: A WH question words + was/were + S + …?

Ex: What were you doing last night when the teacher came?

Yes/No questions:

To be: Was/Were + S + V-ing + …?

Ex: Was he sleeping at 7 AM this morning?

More Examples

  • When he was talking with his friends, his son shouted loudly.
  • She was always complaining in class. 
  • While Mary was washing the dishes, she saw a cat in her garden. 
  • Were you playing with your kids when our boss called?
  • Was your dog eating my food when I left?
  • I was working at the office all day yesterday.
  • I was singing when my dad left home.

3. Past Perfect

What Is It?

The pluperfect, also known as past perfect in English, is a verb tense that refers to an action that took place earlier than the specified point in the past.

Let’s summarize its usage to know when you should use this tense clearly:

  • Describe an action completed before a past action.
  • Express an action that happened before a specific time in the past.
  • Talk about cause and effect (used with past simple).
  • Emphasize the final result of the activity that already happened.

Time Signal

If you are a beginner, let’s refer to these signal words to know when you should use this tense:

  • Already
  • for
  • never
  • before
  • just
  • not yet
  • until that day
  • once
  • when



S + had + V3 (past participle) + …

Ex: My dad had gone out when my mom came back.


S + had not (hadn’t) + V3 + …

Ex: She hadn’t been to my party when I celebrated it.

WH questions

To be: A WH question word + had + S + V3 + …?

Ex: Where had you been when the teacher came?

Yes/No questions

To be: Had + S + V3 + …?

Ex: Had you finished your homework?

More Examples

  • She had left home before her parents came back.
  • I had never been to the cinema before yesterday.
  • What had you done when your parents came back?
  • Had she finished her book before the boss asked her?
  • Mary had been to Paris once by the time she got her new job in France.
  • How had she completed the deadline when the client came?
  • We got stuck here because there had been an accident.

4. Past Perfect Continuous

What Is It?

This tense, commonly referred to as the past perfect progressive tense, describes a previous activity that persisted up until a later point in the past. The present participle of the verb (root + -ing) is combined with had been to form the past perfect continuous tense.

We have concluded 3 common usages of this tense:

  • Express a past action, already started a continued up to another action or time in the past.
  • Describe the duration before something in the past.
  • Talk about the cause of something that already occured.

Time Signal

Although there are no specific signal words for this one, we frequently combine it with the past simple.



S + had + been + V-ing + …

Ex: We had been playing volleyball for 2 hours before it started to rain.


S + had not (hadn’t) + been + V-ing + …

Ex: She hadn’t been writing the lesson when the teacher came.

WH questions

To be: A WH question word + had + S + been + V-ing + …?

Ex: What had you been playing before I went back?

Yes/No questions

To be: Had + S + been + V-ing + …?

Ex: Had you been working all day before yesterday?

More Examples

  • They had been working for 12 hours.
  • I had been using this phone for 3 years before it broke.
  • My sister had been studying hard during the final exams.
  • Had you been playing tennis for 4 hours before it started to rain?
  • What had you been doing when I came?


What Is The Difference Between Past Simple And Past Perfect?

The first one is used to describe events that happened events, frequently in chronological sequence. 

Meanwhile, the latter is used to describe things that happened before another past action (usually expressed in the simple past). In spoken English, the simple one is frequently used instead of the past perfect.

Can We Use Past Perfect Alone?

Contrary to what many people think, this tense can exist without a clause. Although this tense does call for a reference to a past event, you can do this with a prepositional word.

What Is The Difference Between Present Perfect And Past Perfect Continuous?

The past perfect continuous is a tense used to describe something that happened, continued in the past, and also finished at a certain moment in the past, as opposed to the present perfect continuous, which indicates an activity that started in the past and continued up until the present.

How Do You Differentiate Past Tenses?

The past tense describes things that have already happened. In order to create this tense in English, people need to take the present tense of the word and add “-ed” as the suffix or learn by heart the irregular verbs.

What Is Past Perfect Progressive?

As mentioned before, this tense is also known as the past perfect continuous tense. You can use this tense to express an action that started and continued to another time in the past.


This article has summed up almost everything about the past tense and its 4 types. You should pay attention to their usage to use them in the proper situation. The past tense formula is also available for English learners to learn how to form a sentence. 

You should practice these tenses many times to make them become a habit while using them!