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

"had"
+
[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!
to base form

( verb)

Select the tenses.

Present Tenses

Simple Present Tense The simple present tense is mostly used to describe facts and habits. More...(opens new tab) I base form you base form he/she/it 3rd pers sing present we base form you base form they base form Present Progressive Tense The present progressive tense is used for an ongoing action in the present. More...(opens new tab) I am present participle you are present participle he/she/it is present participle we are present participle you are present participle they are present participle Present Perfect Tense The present perfect tense is used for actions that began in the past. (Often, the actions continue into the present.) More...(opens new tab) I have past participle you have past participle he/she/it has past participle we have past participle you have past participle they have past participle Present Perfect Progressive Tense The present perfect progressive tense is used for a continuous activity that began in the past and continues into the present, or a continuous activity that began in past but has now finished (usually very recently). More...(opens new tab) I have been present participle you have been present participle he/she/it has been present participle we have been present participle you have been present participle they have been present participle

Past Tenses

Simple Past The simple past tense is used to describe a completed activity that happened in the past. More...(opens new tab) I past tense you past tense he/she/it past tense we past tense you past tense they past tense Past Progressive Tense 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. More...(opens new tab) I was present participle you were present participle he/she/it was present participle we were present participle you were present participle they were present participle Past Perfect Tense The past perfect tense is used to emphasize that an action was completed before another took place. More...(opens new tab) I had past participle you had past participle he/she/it had past participle we had past participle you had past participle they had past participle Past Perfect Progressive Tense The past perfect progressive tense is used to show that an ongoing action in the past has ended. More...(opens new tab) I had been present participle you had been present participle he/she/it had been present participle we had been present participle you had been present participle they had been present participle

Future Tenses

Simple Future The simple future tense is used for an action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will base form you will base form he/she/it will base form we will base form you will base form they will base form Future Progressive Tense The future progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will be present participle you will be present participle he/she/it will be present participle we will be present participle you will be present participle they will be present participle Future Perfect Tense The future perfect tense is used to describe an action that will have been completed at some point in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have past participle you will have past participle he/she/it will have past participle we will have past participle you will have past participle they will have past participle Future Perfect Progressive Tense The future perfect progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have been present participle you will have been present participle he/she/it will have been present participle we will have been present participle you will have been present participle they will have been present participle

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