What Is the Past Tense? (with Examples)

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Past Tense

The past tense is a verb tense used for a past activity or a past state of being. For example:
  • I jumped in the lake.
  • (This is a past activity.)
  • I was happy.
  • (This is a past state of being.)
The tense of a verb is determined by when the action took place. The three main tenses are:

Examples of the Types of Past Tenses

The past tense is categorized further depending on whether the action was in progress or has been completed. The four past tenses are:
The 4 Past Tenses Examples Uses
simple past tense
  • I went to work.
  • The Martians landed near the aqueduct.
The simple past tense is used to describe a completed activity that started in the past and ended in the past.
past progressive tense
  • I was going to work.
  • We were painting the door when a bird struck the window.
The past progressive tense is used to describe an ongoing activity in the past. Often, it is used to set the scene for another action.
past perfect tense
  • I had gone to work.
  • Rover had eaten the pie before we got home.
The past perfect tense is used to emphasize that an action was completed before another took place.
past perfect progressive
  • I had been going to work.
  • She had been painting the door before the dog scratched it.
The past perfect progressive tense is used to show that an ongoing action in the past has ended.

More about the Four Past Tenses

Below are more examples of the four past tenses. There is also an infographic for each one showing how it is formed and used.

Simple Past Tense

Here is an infographic summarizing the simple past tense.

simple past tense

Examples of the Simple Past Tense

  • I played when I was younger.
  • I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. (Italian sculptor Michelangelo)
  • Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing. (Actor and comedian Robert Benchley)
  • Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do. (French writer Voltaire)
  • I wanted to buy a candle holder, but the store didn't have one. So I got a cake. (Comedian Mitch Hedberg)
  • I have never played a hero before so I jumped at the chance. (Actor Adrian Edmondson)
  • My fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them.
Read more about the simple past tense (including how to form the negative version with did not).

Past Progressive Tense

Here is an infographic summarizing the past progressive tense.

past progressive tense

Examples of the Past Progressive Tense

"was" or "were"
[present participle]
  • I was playing for an hour.
  • I was falling asleep when the phone rang.
  • We were preparing a picnic, and then it started to rain.
  • I feel like I sort of missed the eighties. At the time, we didn't know we were having fun, which is probably the way it always is. (Novelist Tama Janowitz)
  • She was seeing a psychiatrist, two plumbers, and a bartender. (Comedian Rodney Dangerfield)
  • I told my therapist I was having nightmares about nuclear explosions. He said don't worry it's not the end of the world. (Comedian Jay London)
  • I have an idea that the phrase 'weaker sex' was coined by some woman to disarm the man she was preparing to overwhelm. (Poet Ogden Nash)
  • I was having trouble making ends meet, and my beginnings weren't meeting either. (Author Allan Sherman)
Read more about the past progressive tense.

Past Perfect Tense

Here is an infographic summarizing the past perfect tense.

past perfect tense

Examples of the Past Perfect Tense

[past participle]
  • I had played already.
  • I had crossed the line. I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land. (Political activist Harriet Tubman)
  • I had seen birth and death but had thought they were different. (Poet T S Eliot)
  • There are so many things that we wish we had done yesterday, so few that we feel like doing today. (Journalist Mignon McLaughlin)
  • I phoned my dad to tell him I had stopped smoking. He called me a quitter.
  • When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.
  • If we had had more time for discussion we should probably have made a great many more mistakes. (Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky)
  • What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner. (Author Sidonie Gabrielle Colette)
  • I had always seen myself as a star; I wanted to be a galaxy. (Dancer Twyla Tharp)
  • (Note that adverbs (here, always can appear in the middle of the verb chain.)
Read more about the past perfect tense.

Past Perfect Progressive Tense

Here is an infographic summarizing the past perfect tense.

past perfect progressive tense

Examples of the Past Perfect Progressive Tense

"had been"
[present participle]
  • I had been playing since I was ten.
  • I had been weeding my garden for weeks, but I just surrendered to the weeds in the end.
  • The jury had been considering its verdict for several hours when the judge effectively ordered them to find Jones guilty.
  • I was coming home from kindergarten. Well, they told me it was kindergarten. I found out later I had been working in a factory for ten years. (Comedian Ellen DeGeneres)
  • I had been writing fiction since I was in eighth grade, because I loved it. (Author Thomas Perry)
  • I thought that I was learning how to live, but I had been learning how to die. (Polymath Leonardo da Vinci)
  • Even though I had been boxing for three years, I had no idea that I could beat somebody in the ring.
  • Many people had been asking me to write an autobiography. I thought I'd better tell my story before other people told it for me. (Comedian Michael Palin)
  • It was funny to read a script that was so similar to what had been going on in my life. (Actress Piper Perabo)
  • I'd been shouting and shouting and no one wanted to hear me. (Singer Brenda Fassie)
Read more about the past perfect progressive tense.

Verb Tense Widget

Use this widget to learn about the different tenses. How do you use this widget? Well, if there's a button, a drop-down menu, or a , then you can click it!

Slider Showing All the Tenses

The following slider shows all 12 tenses. All the past tenses are highlighted with a yellow background.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are verbs? Try our drag-and-drop test on verb tenses Present tense Future tense Tenses Simple past tense Past progressive tense Past perfect tense Past perfect progressive tense Simple present tense Present progressive tense Present perfect tense Present perfect progressive tense Simple future tense Future progressive tense Future perfect tense Future perfect progressive tense Glossary of grammatical terms