Grammar: Past Tenses
Cartoon man (Andy Avatar) extending left handIn this lesson, you’ll learn how to use Past Tenses. Listen to the audio explanation so you can hear how to say the words or expressions.

The Past Simple
We use the Past Simple for completed actions from the past:

  • He walked to work.
  • I saw an interesting film.
  • She didn’t go to the party.

The Past Continuous
We form the Past Continuous with was-were and a verb in the gerund (with –ing at the end). We use the Past Continuous to refer to actions that were in progress at some point in the past:

  • He was working late last night.
  • They were playing tennis at 3pm last Saturday.

We can use a Past Simple action to “interrupt” a Past Continuous action in progress:

  • While they were walking in the park, it started to rain.
  • While we were having dinner, someone knocked on the door.

The Past Perfect
We form the Past Perfect with had + a past participle. The Past Perfect is often used to describe an action that was completed before some point in the past:

  • The party had started when I arrived.
  • She had finished the work when I called her.

We often use the adverb already with the past perfect. We use already to show that something happened before the moment we’re referring to:

  • The film had already started when we got to the cinema.
  • The bus had already left by the time we arrived at the station.

Notice how we often use contractions with the Past Perfect: I’d (I had); you’d (you had); he’d (he had); she’d (she had); we’d (we had); they’d (they had): 

  • They’d already eaten when we got to the restaurant.
  • She’d already finished the work when I spoke to her.

Now compare these sentences:
a) When I arrived at the meeting, Pete had already left.
b) When I arrived at the meeting, Pete left.

In sentence a, Pete left before I arrived.
In sentence b, Pete left after I arrived (or at the same time) – I arrived at the meeting, and a minute or so later, Pete left.

Passive structures

The Past Simple Passive
We form the Past Simple Passive with was / were and a past participle:

  • She was given the prize.
  • They weren’t told about it.

The Past Continuous Passive
We form the Past Continuous Passive with was being / were being and a past participle:

  • The film was being edited.
  • The rooms weren’t being cleaned.

The Past Perfect Passive
We form the Past Perfect Passive with had been + a past participle:

  • All the food had been eaten.
  • She had been paid a lot of money.

Generally, we use the Passive Voice when we want to focus on the object of the sentence. The person who performs the action (the agent) either isn’t important or isn’t known. However, we can mention the agent by using the word by:

  • The food was prepared by Ben.
  • The money had been paid by Jenny.

To summarise, we use the passive when…
a) …we don’t know who performed the action = “The goods were sent by train.”
b) …it isn’t important who performed the action = “Breakfast was served at 7am.”
c) …it’s obvious who performed the action = “The food was packaged here in the factory.” [Obviously, factory workers packaged the food.]
d) …we want to distance ourselves from something = “Mistakes were made.” [This is instead of saying, “I made mistakes”, which implies personal responsibility.]
e) …we need to explain a process = “The chemical was placed in a test tube. Then, it was mixed with another substance.”

Grammar speaking drill
Now we’re going to practise using the language. Listen to the instructions and do the exercises orally (by speaking)! Good luck! [Scroll down for the answers.]

Language drill
Listen and say the complete sentences with the correct words.

  1. She __________ six months in prison.
  2. They __________ they were looking for.
  3. Her appeal against the sentence __________.
  4. They __________ to work for a change.
  5. They __________ the field when it started to rain.
  6. She __________ for the work she’d done.
  7. They __________ a deadline of three weeks.
  8. The rooms __________ while we were having lunch.
  9. Someone called while we __________.
  10. What __________ last night at 9pm?
  11. The guard __________ the first floor at about 11pm.
  12. Someone had climbed in __________.
  13. One of the guards had __________.
  14. The robbers managed to get in __________.
  15. No one was aware of it __________.
  16. She turned up __________.
  17. They weren’t informed __________.
  18. She wasn’t given access __________.
  19. They found out about it __________.
  20. We couldn’t think of a solution __________.

Now, try the quiz to see how much you can remember!

cartoon man (Andy Avatar) pointing at blackboard



1. was sentenced to; 2. couldn’t find what; 3. was unsuccessful; 4. decided to walk; 5. were walking across; 6. hadn’t been paid; 7. were given; 8. were being cleaned; 9. were having dinner; 10. were you doing; 11. went up to; 12. through the downstairs window; 13. opened the side door; 14. through the back door; 15. until the following day; 16. about six hours later; 17. of the changes; 18. to the equipment; 19. a few months later; 20. to the problem

Quiz / Lesson 2 Grammar 2