English Past Tense ComparisonJust here for the exercises? Click here.
Past tenses in English grammar
We use each tense to express different information about when and how a past action took place and we combine all four when telling stories and anecdotes.
Learn the difference between the past tenses in English grammar and how to use them in a sentence. Put your knowledge to the test in the interactive exercises.
We had been travelling for hours when we finally arrived at the hostel.
It was raining heavily and my umbrella had broken earlier that day, so we were relieved to finally get inside where it was warm.
We reached the front desk, gave our names and the receptionist checked the book for our reservation.
While he was looking, his expression was becoming more and more confused.
Eventually, he turned to us and told us that they had no record of a booking under our name.
Not only that, but another guest had just taken their last available room.
What a disaster!
How to use the different past tenses in English
As shown in the example above, we use a combination of the different past tenses when telling stories and anecdotes.
The table below summarises the different uses of the English past tenses.
|Simple Past||lists the main action and events of a story, usually in sequential order||We reached the front desk, gave our names and the receptionist checked the book for our reservation.
He turned to us and told us that they had no record of our booking.
|Past Progressive||sets the scene by describing situations that were in progress at the same time as the main actions||It was raining heavily when we checked in.|
|describes actions that were in progress simultaneously
signal word: while
|While he was looking, his expression was becoming more and more confused.|
|Past Perfect Simple||expresses actions that happened prior to the main action of the story
signal words: just, already, yet, ever, never (… before)
|My umbrella had broken earlier that day.
Another guest had just taken the last available room.
|Past Perfect Progressive||expresses the duration of an action that was ongoing up to the beginning of the story
signal words: for, since, all day/night/week …
|We had been travelling for hours when we finally arrived at the hostel.|