Introduction:

Although it is not difficult to talk about the past in English, many students still mistakes when doing it. The reason is using past verbs incorrectly. Past verbs are used to explain when different actions/things happened in the past. For example, when one action happens before another action, or at the same time or after it. If you don't use past verbs correctly, you will either confuse the people you are talking to or tell them something which is wrong.

In this online exercise on talking about the past, we'll look at using four different verbs (past simple, past continuous, past perfect and present simple) to talk about when things happened in the past. It is important to know that some of these verbs meanings can change a little depending on the context they are in.

Click here to see more online exercises on English verbs and phrasal verbs


How verbs are used in the past

Look at the verbs in bold in the below text about going on holiday to Barcelona. From the context think about the reason why that type of verb is being used in that part of the story and when the action happened (before, at the same time or after).

After you have read and understood both the text and why the verbs are being used, then do the two quizzes after the text to test your understanding.

Going on Holiday

Last year I went on holiday to Barcelona in Spain with my wife. It was my first trip to Barcelona and I had never been to Spain before. I had been to France, but that was when I was a child.

When we landed at Barcelona airport it was raining. I had thought that it was always sunny in Spain, so we hadn't brought any clothes for rainy weather. How stupid! After we had picked up our luggage, we caught a bus from the airport to the city centre.

While we were travelling on the bus, we asked a women if she knew how we could get to our hotel. She showed us on map where the hotel was and which bus stop to get off at.

The bus takes about 40 minutes to arrive in the middle of Barcelona. When the bus arrived at the last bus stop, we got off and started to walk to our hotel. After about 10 minutes we realised that we were lost and it was still raining. Unfortunately, neither of our mobile phones were working, so we couldn't look at an online map.

For about 30 minutes, we were trying to find the hotel. I was looking at the map and my wife was asking people if they knew where the hotel was. Nobody she asked, could speak English and my wife didn't know any Spanish (although she can speak some now) and I don't know any Spanish at all.

We finally found somebody who spoke English and he showed us where the hotel was. Five minutes after that we arrived at the hotel, very wet but happy. Even in the rain, Barcelona is a very beautiful city.


 Link to Dictionary


Quiz: How to use past English verbs

This quiz is divided into 2 parts.
For the first six questions, you have to decide which type of verb is being described. Choose from the question's selection box one of the four types which you think is right. Click on the "Check Answers" button at the bottom of the quiz to check your answers.

When the answer is correct, an Additional Information Icon "" will appear next to the answer. Click on this for extra information on use of this type of verb.

1. Which type of verb would you use to say that something happened before something else happened in the past?
     

The 'past perfect' (I had gone/watched) is used when you want to say that one action happened before another action happened in past. For example:

'I had done the housework before I left' or 'I left the house at 3. I had done the housework before'
In the above examples, 'had done the housework' (the past perfect) happened before 'left the house' (the past simple). We always use the the 'past simple' for the action which happened after it.

The past perfect is used to say that one action happened (and finished) some time before another action happened in the past (could be 10 minutes before or 2 hours, 2 weeks or longer).

If you want to say that one action happened directly after another action (there was little time between the actions taking place), then you use 'past simples' for both verbs. For example:
'I did the housework before I left'
In this example, because you are using two 'past simple' verbs, it suggests that directly after doing the housework you left the house. There was no or little time between one action finishing and the other happening.

You can use the 'past simple' like the 'past perfect', but you have to say how long before the action happened if you don't want to confuse people. For example:
'I did the housework 30 minutes before I left'

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2. Which type of verb would you use to say what activity you were doing during a specific time (e.g. a morning, 20 minutes etc...) in the past?
     

One of the uses of the 'past continuous' (I was talking/reading) is to say what activity you were doing at a specific time in the past. For example:

'they were working at 10 in the morning' or 'they were working yesterday morning'
You can use the 'past continuous' to say the activity you were doing at a specific point of time in the past (e.g. at 11 o'clock, at 5.30 etc...) or during a period of time (e.g. a morning, a day, a month, an event etc...).

When you use the 'past continuous' to say what you were doing during a period of time (e.g. 'I was reading in the morning), it doesn't mean that it was the only thing you did during this time but that you spent the majority of this time doing this activity (during this time you may also have gone to the toilet or spoken to somebody on the phone etc...).

If you used the 'past simple' in the same situation (e.g. 'I read in the morning'), it would mean that you only spent some time during the morning reading (it was one of many activities that you did).

The 'past continuous' is only used to say the activity you were doing. If you want to say the place you were in, you would use 'I was, we were etc...'. For example:
'during the afternoon I was at home'

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3. When you do an action in the past, quickly followed by another action and possibly by another action, you would use what type of verb?
     

The 'past simple' verb is used when you want to say that one action was quickly followed by another action in the past. For example:

'I finished my homework and then started to cook dinner'
In this example, you start to cook dinner very quickly after you finish your homework. The 'past simple' is used when you did consecutive actions in the past, where there was little or no time between them happening.

If you want to say that one action happened (and finished) some time before another action happened in the past (e.g. 10 minutes before or longer), then you would use the 'past perfect' (e.g. I had gone) for the action that happens first. For example:
'I had finished my homework and then started to cook dinner'
You can also use the 'past simple' with the same meaning as the 'past perfect', but you have to say how long before the action happened if you don't want to confuse people. For example:
'I did the housework 30 minutes before I left'

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4. Which type of verb would you use to say that you were doing something else when another thing happened?
     

One of the uses of the 'past continuous' (I was talking/reading) is to say an action was happening when something happened in past. For example:

'I was eating dinner when my friend arrived'
In this example, you know the activity you were doing ('was eating dinner') before and upto the moment when something else happened ('my friend arrived'). With this meaning, we use both a 'past continuous' verb and a 'past simple' verb to show when both actions happened. It is also common to use 'when' to connect before actions together in the sentence (e.g. 'I heard about news when I was working').

If you used the 'past simple' instead of the 'past continuous' in this sentence, it would change when both actions happened. For example:
'I ate dinner when my friend arrived'
In this example, you would start to eat dinner when your friend arrived.

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5. Which type of verb would you use when you know/believe that something is the same now as it was in the past?
     

You use the 'present simple' verb (e.g. 'it is', 'I can' etc...) when talking about the past when we know that something hasn't changed or is still true between then and now. For example:

'my house is near the beach and it had a large garden'
In the above example, the present simple verb 'is' is used to tell the person it is still your house. The past simple verb 'had' is used because this has changed between the past and now (your house doesn't have a big garden now).

If you don't know if something is the same now as it was in the past, then use the 'past simple' when writing about it. For example:
'the hotel was large and near the park'
Although the hotel may still be large, if you don't know it still is, then use the 'past simple'.

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6. Which type of verb would you use when two actions happened at the same time in the past?
     

One of the uses of the 'past continuous' (I was talking/reading) is to say that two activities were happening at the same time in the past (normally at a specific time, e.g. 'in the morning' etc...). For example:

'I was reading and my friend was watching TV'.
In this example, by using two 'past continuous' verbs we know that both activities (reading and watching TV) happened at the same time.

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In the second part of the quiz, you will find a text about somebody getting their first job interview. Complete the text by choosing the correct type of verb (present simple, past simple, past continuous or past perfect) in each selection box, so it makes sense. Look at the context that the verb is in to decide which type of verb is necessary. Click on the "Check Answers" button at the bottom of the quiz to check your answers.


My First Job Interview

When I was 22, I my first job interview. I university the year before, but it wasn't easy to find a good job at that time. In the months before I finally got the job, I my CV/resume to over 50 different companies, but only 5 of them had written back to me. All of the 5 that I needed more experience.

My luck suddenly one day in March. I will never forgot that day. I on the internet for job offers at home when my mother knocked on my bedroom door and told me that I had a telephone call from Lloyds Bank. I from bedroom to the living room and picked up the phone. While I , my mother was standing next to me, looking nervous. They offered me a job interview for a position in their marketing department for the next morning. I was so excited.

If you don't know, Lloyds one of the biggest banks in the world. It has offices all around the world.

Although I knew a lot about marketing (I it at university), I to make sure that I was ready to answer any questions they would ask me. So during the rest of the afternoon I my answers to any question they could ask me.

The next day, I woke up, a shower, spoke to my parents, had breakfast and put on my suit. By the time I the house my parents had already gone to work. Unfortunately, it was raining when I the house and it didn't stop. So I arrived at the job interview very wet. But it didn't matter, I did the interview and got the job.






Practice

Now that you understand the use of these types of verbs, practice them by creating your own sentences in English.

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