9 Forms of the Past Tense

By Mark Nichol

Multiple variations of past tense that employ regular verbs occur in English. Explanations of the distinctions follow. Note that each section includes examples of positive-declarative, negative-declarative, and interrogative forms.

1. Simple Past

A sentence in the simple-past form describes an event that occurred in the past:

“They agreed with us.”

“They did not agree with us.”

“Did they agree with us?”

Notice that in the first sentence, the verb form of agree is in past tense, but in the other examples, did does the heavy lifting of indicating the tense, so agree remains in present tense. In almost all other variations of past tense, the form of the verb “to be” and the participle retain the same form regardless of the type of sentence.

2. Past Progressive (or Past Continuous)

Past-progressive statements and questions describe something that began in the past and continued to occur for a time before stopping:

“They were agreeing with us.”

“They were not agreeing with us.”

“Were they agreeing with us?”

3. Past Perfect

This tense form applies to events that began at a time preceding a period in the past:

“They had agreed with us.”

“They had not agreed with us.”

“Had they agreed with us?”

4. Past Perfect Progressive (or Past Perfect Continuous)

Sentences with this tense form describe something that occurred in the past and continued to occur after the fact but in the present is no longer occurring:

“They had been agreeing with us.”

“They had not been agreeing with us.”

“Had they been agreeing with us?”

5. Past Habitual

A sentence written in past-habitual tense describes an occurrence that once occurred continuously or repeatedly:

“They used to agree with us.”

“They used to not agree with us.”

(This formal usage is awkward and seldom used; we are more likely to write, “They used to disagree with us.” An informal version of the sentence, more likely to be used if no direct antonym like disagree is available for a given sentence, is “They didn’t use to agree with us.”)

“Used they to agree with us?”

(This formal usage is rare. The informal form, much more common, is, “Did they use to agree with us?”)

6. Time-Specific Past Habitual

A variation of the past-habitual tense includes a specific time frame:

“Before, they would agree with us.”

“Before, they would not agree with us.”

“Before, would they agree with us?”

7. Past Intensive

A sentence in the past-intensive form describes something confirmed as having occurred:

“They did agree with us.”

“They did not agree with us.”

“Did they agree with us?”

8. Future in the Past

A future-in-the-past construction describes something that was supposed to have occurred after a time in the past:

“They were going to agree with us.”

“They were not going to agree with us.”

“Were they going to agree with us?”

Past Subjunctive
This form is not numbered, because it is not, despite its name, a type of past tense, but it is identified here to make that point. A sentence formed in the past subjunctive describes a counterfactual event:

“If they were going to agree with us, they would have told us by now.”

“If they were not going to agree with us, they would have told us by now.”

“If they were they going to agree with us, would they have told us by now?”

9. Past-Perfect Subjunctive

Sentences with this subjunctive form, by contrast, do have a past-tense sense:

“Had they agreed with us, they would have told us by now.”

“Had they not agreed with us, they would have told us by now.”

“Had they agreed with us, would they have told us by now?”

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12 Responses to “9 Forms of the Past Tense”

  • Ken K

    Thanks for the review.

  • Stephanie

    Is anyone else going “amo, amas, amat” in their head?

    Sidenote, I think you mean “agree” not “drive” under #1.

    Any way, another great post!

  • Suzanne

    Wow! First impression: what a mess.

    Why is the English language so difficult? I understand it – now, and am thankful for this site, but, how is a kid suppose to remember all of this? Was this always so intense? I do not ever remember learning anything like this.

    Thanks.

  • Henry

    “Washington would become the first president.”

    What is this?

  • Kate

    Question: in the examples under #5, past habitual, were the instances where “used to” was replaced by “use to” accidental? Or was the omission of the “d on purpose?

    Thanks!

  • AJ

    Thank you. I’ve been waiting for this.

  • Szakif

    Thanks Stephanie for the comment. I thought so. No wonder I did not understand that.

  • Mark Nichol

    Kate:

    Use, not used, is correct in the formal past-habitual examples; just as in the simple-past sentences, didn’t provides the past-tense marker for the sentence.

  • Sally

    Mark:

    I don’t think it’s too hard to introduce terms like ‘aspect’ and ‘mood’ in this discussion (tense = time, aspect = how time is viewed – as a point/continuous, etc – mood = the speaker’s attitude – fact, order, wish etc).

    Kate/Mark:

    ‘Used’ is correct inthe British Commonwealth, and one says “They used not agree with us” or “They usen’t (to) agree with us” or – more usually – “They didn’t often agree with us.”

    Suzanne:

    All languages have their ‘easy’ aspects and their ‘difficult’ ones. Kids learn how to speak ‘correctly’ from their parents and the wider community in which they live.

  • Sally F

    Where’s the present perfect (‘I have agreed with you’) or am I missing something?

  • Suzanne (another)

    Any chance of something on the different forms of the present tense and how to use it to best effect? Also how not to slip into the pseudo-past even though using present tense words. eg The rest of the evening passes quickly…

  • James White

    I don’t see the past conditionals like He could have gone to the store but it was raining. I think the conditionals are also a whole other category.

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