English Learning Box


Simple Past vs. Past Continuous vs. Past Perfect

If you’re an English learner, you’ve probably learned a past tense or two, such as the past simple or present perfect. You may have also seen or heard other past tense forms, such as: Examples: past progressive and past perfect. It can be difficult, especially if during the conversation he has to put two together or decide which one is better.

Well, don’t worry! It’s normal to wonder which past tense is correct. While it certainly helps to study them individually first, it is very helpful to see how they compare and what the main differences are. So let’s first take a quick look at each past tense, and then see how they work together.

The Past Simple

There’s a good reason why this is usually the first past tense we learn in English, and the most common form we use.

There are two main things to keep in mind when it comes to the simple past. To use it,

action must end
Obviously time is up
for example,

Last Saturday I met her friend Erica.


The action started and ended at a specific time (last Saturday). Use the past tense of the verb to form the past tense (this is the same for all subjects). Next, use “did” to form interrogative and negative sentences. for example,

Did you meet Erica last Saturday?
I didn’t see Erica last Saturday.

Combination of past tense and present perfect tense

These two tenses are often used in combination. For example, you can use the present perfect to ask about a situation or describe an experience.

I was in New York.

If you then find out that the action took place in the past, simply enter the past information.

The last time I visited New York was in 2016. I stayed at a hotel downtown and visited all the museums. good!

Or, if you want to know whether an action was taken, use the present tense, but the responder can provide information in the simple past tense. for example,

Have you sent these documents to the warehouse? yes. I shipped it this morning, but it has already been returned.

He was having dinner when I arrived.

To create a question form, reverse “was/were” in the subject. And add “not” to make the negative clear. for example,

did he eat? he didn’t eat dinner.

Combination of simple past and continuous past
When using the past continuous tense, it is most often used in conjunction with the past simple tense. why? This is because the past continuous tense allows us to explain the context of a situation, creating an image of the situation in which something is happening (as described in the simple past tense). for example,

We were driving down the road, talking about the holidays, when suddenly a car passed us, followed by a police car. past continuous
We use this tense to talk about something that happened in the past rather than something else. It doesn’t have to happen in the distant past, right before another action. Using the past tense

action must end
There must be another recently completed action or past time in the sentence to which it is compared
for example,

We had already started the meeting when John arrived.

To make a complete sentence, use “had” and the past participle of the main verb. When asking a question, replace the subject with “had” and add “not” when forming a negative sentence. for example,

Had you already started the meeting when John arrived?
We had not yet started the meeting when John arrived.

We often use “already” in the past perfect tense. for example,

I didn’t watch it with my friends because I had already seen the movie.

By the time the first course arrived we had already finished our drinks. Combination of past simple and past perfect
The past perfect is rarely used without the simple past because comparisons naturally require different actions. If you want to describe actions in sequence, you can simply use the past tense. for example,

Choose the best verb form to complete these sentences.
1. The boy __________ his arm while he was playing football.

2. The receptionist welcomed us and __________ us to fill in the form.

3. While one team __________ the food, the others were setting up the dining area.

4. He __________ a shower before he headed to the swimming pool.

5. The worker fell while he __________ the wall.

6. They __________ all their tasks before they went on vacation.

7. I __________ a strange noise last night.

8. When you __________ last night, I was listening to a podcast.

9. My father __________ the broken light bulb before the guests arrived.

10. I'm sure I had locked the door before I __________.

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