Past Tense: Examples, Definition, Use, Formula, Structure, Rules & Exercises for English Learners

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The groundwork of any language is grammar. In English, we first acquire knowledge about the different parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, and so on. Then we learn to form sentences, which almost always involve using verbs. An essential element to utilizing verbs effectively is to study the tenses.

Tenses are forms of verbs that denote when an action, event, or condition happens. They can include periods of time and unfinished time periods. The three main tenses are past, present, and future. Each main type is further classified into four aspects: simple, continuous (progressive tense), perfect, and perfect continuous (perfect progressive tense). This makes a total of 12 verb tenses in the English language. Using each tense properly allows you to communicate fluently, as each tense possesses a distinctive meaning. For example, the sentences “I am eating an apple”, “I ate an apple”, and “I will eat an apple” mean differently from each other. First, “am eating” describes an action that is happening at this very moment. Second, “ate” describes an action that has ended. Finally, “will eat” describes an action that has yet to take place at unfinished time periods.

At first glance, the verbs may not look so different from each other, but each alteration follows a specific grammatical rule and can help you convey your thoughts or ideas clearly. To minimize and eventually eliminate confusion, it’s crucial to study the unique functions of each verb tense. The following are the primary rules of the main tenses. Use them as a basic guide before moving on to more complex usage.

  • Use the present tense when expressing events in or around the current time.
  • Apply the past tense when describing actions that are already finished or completed.
  • Use the future tense when making predictions, stating possibilities, or discussing events that haven’t started at the time of speaking.

Read on to learn more about the different types of past tenses and study examples to comprehend their patterns or formulas in various sentence structures.

What is the Definition and Meaning of Past Tense?

What is past tense exactly? The primary function of the past tense is to classify an action as a past occurrence. Some examples of past tense verbs are talked, ran, ate, finished, and danced. They each refer to a time period that previously took place. There are 4 types of past tenses: simple past, past continuous or progressive tense, past perfect, and past perfect continuous. Like the present and future tenses, the forms of the different types of past tenses are manifested in their conjugation patterns. Except for the simple past tense, the other 3 tenses use helping or auxiliary verbs (i.e. was/were, had, had been). The past tense also uses prepositional phrases and adverbs of time. For example yesterday, last week, a year ago, for two hours, and since last year to indicate that something happened in the past. Study the past tense example set and types in the following table.

Simple Past TenseDuan rode his bike.
Maya cooked dinner.
Annika read the comic book.
Max sent me an email yesterday.
My uncle picked me up an hour ago.
Past Continuous TenseBobbsey was writing a book.
Chantal was using the tablet to draw.
Trixie was speaking to Jake in the hall.
Margot was answering her emails last night.
was talking to Katrina for a brief period of time yesterday.
Past Perfect TenseEula had mixed vodka with the fruit punch.
Mr. Percy had taken a look at the numbers.
They had finished eating breakfast by the time I woke up. 
Ian had lied to his nephew before the surprise was revealed.
Samson had encoded the password before Johan told him it was changed.
Past Perfect Continuous TenseSusan’s team had been fixing errors from last week’s blunders.
Leticia had been working with Sofia’s team for many periods of time.
The students had been developing a method to collate research.
Colton had been refining the routine when I arrived at the dance studio.
Willie’s department had been checking the surveillance videos for hours.
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5 Tips on How should English Learners Best Study and Learn the Proper Usage of Past Tense Words?

1. Learn the definition of past tense, its different types, and their respective conjugations.

2. Study examples of each type and ensure you have a robust understanding of their differences and usage.

3. Make examples by using your experiences. It’s easy to practice when you pull past actions, events, and circumstances from memory.

4. Recount memories from your past and narrate them by alternating or using each past tense definition according to type. Pretend you are answering an interview or telling someone a story.

5. Develop a habit of mapping the verbs you learn in a personal table or chart. It’s a great way to retain vocabulary and activate stored knowledge regarding tenses that you’ve already acquired. 

How Do You Use the Past Tense?

1. The Simple Past Tense is used for actions, events, and conditions that started and ended in the past. For example, “Martin walked to school.”

2. The Past Continuous or Past Progressive Tense is used to talk about past actions with an emphasis on how they were continuous actions or “in progress” at that period of time. For example, “Yosef was using rubber arrows.”

3. The Past Perfect Tense is used to describe events that began sometime in the past and finished at another time in the past. It’s also used to describe the sequence of two past actions or events. It shows the actions that were completed first and the past simple is used to describe the action that took place after. For example, “Belinda had given away the pamphlets when we called her.”

4. The Past Perfect Continuous is used for actions that started in a past time period and were still “in progress” up to a specific time in the past or to emphasize that certain past actions were ongoing before other past actions interrupted them. For example, “Sola had been donating to the foundation since high school.”

Regular Verb Examples in Past Tense Conjugations

Regular Verb Root FormSimple PastPast ContinuousPast PerfectPast Perfect Continuous
MarchThe band marched.The band was marching.The band had marched.The band had been marching.
JumpJack jumped over the wall.Jack was jumping over the wall.Jack had jumped over the wall.Jack had been jumping over the wall.
WatchVera and Amanda watched the series.Vera and Amanda were watching the series.Vera and Amanda had watched the series.Vera and Amanda had been watching the series.
HowlA lot of dogs howled at the barn.A lot of dogs were howling at the barn.A lot of dogs had howled at the barn.A lot of dogs had been howling at the barn.
ChatMy friend chatted through Messenger.My friend was chatting through Messenger.My friend had chatted through Messenger.My friend had been chatting through Messenger.

Irregular Verb Examples in Past Tense Conjugations

Irregular Verb Root FormSimple PastPast ContinuousPast PerfectPast Perfect Continuous
EatI ate some strawberries.I was eating some strawberries.I had eaten some strawberries.I had been eating some strawberries.
StandClarisse stood at the foot of the hill.Clarisse was standing at the foot of the hill.Clarisse had stood at the foot of the hill.Clarisse had been standing at the foot of the hill.
ReadRavi read the report.Ravi was reading the report.Ravi had read the report.Ravi had been reading the report.
TeachMala and her sister taught at Sunday school.Mala and her sister were teaching at Sunday school.Mala and her sister had taught at Sunday school.Mala and her sister had been teaching at Sunday school.
BuyThey bought the tickets.They were buying the tickets.They had bought the tickets.They had been buying the tickets.

What are the Past Tenses Formulas?

The following are the general formulas of the 4 Types of Past Tenses (affirmative past sentences):

1. Simple Past Tense Rules

Simple Past Tense Formula
Subject + Verb + ed/past tense form of irregular verbs + Rest of the sentence.

2. Past Continuous Tense

Past Continuous Tense Formula
Subject + Am/was/were + Present Participle (-ing or continuous form)  + Rest of the sentence.

3. Past Perfect Tense

Past Perfect Tense Formula
Subject + Had + Past participle + Rest of the sentence.

4. Past Perfect Continuous Tense

Past Perfect Continuous Tense Formula
Subject + Had been + Present participle (-ing or continuous form) + Rest of the sentence.

Subject + Had been + Present participle (-ing or continuous form) + Rest of the sentence.

Structures of the Past Tenses

So far, the examples used in this article illustrate past tense forms in the affirmative or positive sentence structure. However, there are other sentence structures used to express past periods of time. The next 4 segments will show more examples of past tenses in negative, interrogative, and interrogative negative sentence types. 

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Simple Past Tense in Other Sentence Types

Let’s take a look at some simple past tense sentences.

(Important: Conversational English typically uses contractions like “didn’t” and “hadn’t”, especially in past tense questions. These contractions are used in the following simple past tense sentence formulas. Spelling them out as “did not” and “had not” is also correct, but this practice is usually reserved for more formal contexts.)

Sentence StructureFormulaExamples
NegativeDid + Subject + Root form of verb + Rest of the sentence?Mason didn’t attend the reception.
Saito didn’t listen to Haruki’s advice.
Clara didn’t arrive on time for the musical performance.
Sandy didn’t regret ordering the biggest bowl of ice cream.
Arthur didn’t know the time period of Collette’s employment.
InterrogativeDid + Subject + Root form of verb + Rest of the sentence?Did the package get here?
Did Marissa shake the box while I was out?
Did you know about the conference venue?
Did Maru call to confirm the medieval package?
Did Niall use the markers from the boardroom?
Interrogative NegativeDidn’t + Subject + Root form of verb + Rest of the sentence?
(note: the formula “Did + subject + not + Root form of the verb + Rest of the sentence” is often used to connote emotions such as disbelief, astonishment, shock, etc.)
Didn’t you check with them first?
Didn’t Esther inform him of the changes?
Didn’t Veronica look for another seamstress?
Didn’t Gregory purchase this from the flagship store?
Didn’t Chico drive his motorcycle to get there faster?

Past Continuous in Other Sentence Types

Here are past tense sentences in the past continuous tense:

Sentence StructureFormulaExamples
NegativeSubject + Wasn’t/Weren’t + Present participle + Rest of the sentence.Thea Dane wasn’t returning to Greenville.
William wasn’t sleeping in the breakroom.
Rebecca wasn’t telling the story of Awakawaka correctly.
Sandra’s students weren’t listening because they were distracted.
The tiles weren’t sticking well due to the adhesive’s poor quality.
InterrogativeWas/Were + Subject + Present participle + Rest of the sentence?Was Daria wearing a red gown?
Were they looking at the collection?
Was Sokka applying for the position in Cebu?
Were Brad and Ji Eun carrying these boxes?
Was Lakshmi brewing the grounds that she bought?
Interrogative NegativeWasn’t/Weren’t + Subject + Present participle + Rest of the sentenceWeren’t her parents sitting on the balcony?
Wasn’t Julie retaining the consultant services?
Wasn’t Ursula throwing the old receipts in the bin?
Weren’t the production people tuning the speakers?
Weren’t Tai’s family vacationing in Mt. Patag for a long period of time?

Past Perfect in Other Sentence Types

Each of the following is an example of past tense in perfect type:

Sentence StructureFormulaExamples
NegativeSubject + Hadn’t + Past participle + Rest of the sentence.I hadn’t gilded the frame yet.
The company hadn’t implemented the new policies.
La Salle University’s Bacolod campus hadn’t issued a statement.
Finn hadn’t finished shopping when Lucinda called him.
Lovelle hadn’t appraised the gems that came in last week when I checked.
InterrogativeHad + Subject + Past participle + Rest of the sentence?Had the guys fumigated the room?
Had Cynthia reached her quota for the quarter?
Had Radhi mentioned anything since we arrived?
Had Mara kept this information a secret all this time?
Had Ladel given the blueprint for the Johnsons’ cabin?
Interrogative NegativeHadn’t + Subject + Past participle + Rest of the sentence?Hadn’t your kids graduated 5 years ago?
Hadn’t Cygnus sunbathed for an hour?
Hadn’t they sprayed pesticides in this section?
Hadn’t Tina lived there for a decade already?
Hadn’t you tried the fresh spring rolls delivered at the party?

Past Perfect Continuous Tense in Other Sentence Types

Below are past tense sentences in English in their perfect continuous form.

Sentence StructureFormulaExamples
NegativeSubject + Hadn’t been + Past participle + Rest of the sentence.Solange hadn’t been polishing the cutlery.
They hadn’t been coming to the store for a while now.
We hadn’t been negotiating with them.
Merida hadn’t been cooperating with the authorities.
The factory hadn’t been operating for a period of time last winter.
InterrogativeHad + Subject + Been + Past participle + Rest of the sentence?Had Herma been teaching English?
Had Ray and the kids been visiting his mom?
Had she been washing the car since an hour ago?
Had the sunshine been coming through this window?
Had the children been swimming in the pond by the trees?
Interrogative NegativeHadn’t + Subject + Been + Past participle + Rest of the sentence?Hadn’t Shoshanna been calling you?
Hadn’t they been setting this up since college?
Hadn’t they been living out here in the woods?
Hadn’t Dennis been feeding the birds all morning?
Hadn’t he been studying art for a period of time?
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Simple Past Tense Usage

The simple past tense can talk about things that occurred in the recent or distant past. It doesn’t refer to unfinished time periods and the length of action isn’t important. We can use the simple past with adverbs of frequency such as “often”, “always”, “rarely” and so on. We can also use an expression of definite time like “when I was 5 years old”, “last year”, “3 weeks ago”, etc., or an indefinite time reference such as “a long time ago, “ages ago”, “once upon a time”, etc.

5 Simple Past Tense Examples

1. Yesterday, the interviewer asked me simple questions.

2. Sonia placed this event in relation to the traffic accident.

3. Mitchell predicted the effects of global warming on a future event.

4. The TV show Doctor Who explained the nature of complex time relationships.

5. When I was in elementary school, I found it easy to practice accuracy in verb use.

Past Continuous Tense Usage

We use the past continuous tense to talk about ongoing actions in the past. It emphasizes that an action was in progress for some prior duration. Also, the past continuous tense can provide contexts for or reasons why an event happened. Additionally, it is used when describing actions that happened frequently in the past. In this case, we use adverbs or adverb phrases to signify the action’s repetitive or habitual nature.

5 Past Continuous Tense Examples

1. Abanilla was concentrating on her pets for an entire year.

2. He was breaking grammar rules while talking about a historical event.

3. Nelson’s students were using an online writing tool for their midterm essays.

4. My boss was explaining that the minor difference isn’t enough to give a demerit.

5. Karen was stating that it was a question of emphasis, and not meaning, that she found the gesture offensive.

Past Perfect Tense Usage

The past perfect tense is used to express actions that happened up to a point in the past and to describe events that occurred earlier than another action in the past.

5 Past Perfect Tense Examples

1. They hadn’t seen the answer key before the teacher showed it to them.

2. Weaving called Yoona’s office but her secretary said she had left already.

3. Laila had taken lessons in academic writing before enrolling in the program.

4. Since yesterday, Zainab hadn’t stopped wondering if she gave the correct answer.

5. Eulie had lived in and out of shelters for different periods of time before he found a job.

Past Perfect Continuous Tense Usage

The past perfect continuous tense is used to describe an ongoing action that was completed or finished prior to another past event. Like with all continuous forms, we’re emphasizing the action itself and its possible influence of effects on the subject. The focus isn’t on the action’s completion. Like in the example “They had been driving when they spotted the deer.” The speaker doesn’t care whether they stopped driving but focuses on the action as it was in progress at that time.

5 Past Perfect Continuous Tense Examples

1. Radisson had been filling the tank with water from a massive well.

2. Each individual action had been affecting the overall performance.

3. Lyselle had been giving me lip since I messed up the reports in April.

4. We had been dreaming of going on holiday to Korea for about 3 years.

5. Hadrian had been presenting facts that the batteries guarantee long-lasting actions.

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5 Common Mistakes English Students Make When Learning to Use Past Tenses?

1. Spelling Errors. Since there are 4 types of past tenses each conjugated differently with auxiliary verbs and spelling rules, it’s easy for English learners to get confused. Irregular verbs also deviate from the typical “root form + –ed” formula for regular past tense words or verbs. There are a lot of past participle forms to memorize, making spelling errors a common problem for students.

2. Using tenses wrongly. A common mistake is using the simple past tense to talk about unfinished time periods. Simple past tenses refer to specific points when actions ended in the past.

3. Using only 1 learning method. There are many methods: writing a learning journal, listen-and-repeat techniques, textbooks, language learning software, hiring tutors, attending English classes, creating English grammar charts and tables, and so on. Sticking to one method isn’t the most effective way to study.

4. Switching Tenses. Some students do well in expressing themselves when speaking in short sentences. But oftentimes, they fumble when they need to speak at length. Failure to listen to yourself when you’re narrating a story and using a different tense midway can lead to a breakdown of communication.

5. Translating directly. Direct translations rarely work or capture the essence of the original sentence. Also, expressions used by native speakers can differ greatly from the original language equivalent. Patterns are also different. This makes direct translations ultimately ineffective in language studies.

5 Ways to Avoid Making Common Mistakes?

1. Setting Impossible Goals. Objectives that aren’t achievable are followed by slow progress and frustration. In fact, the mentality of huge accomplishments at breakneck speed is a core mistake in language learning. Learning a language takes time so it’s important to set realistic goals set at your own level and pace.

2. Listen and Speak. You can learn a language for decades and not make any headway if you don’t listen and speak. Listening to native English speakers, whether in real interactions or through video or audio learning materials, can help you mimic the way they speak. Speaking, on the other hand, is the only method to achieve fluency. Mistakes are natural and you’ll be making many in the beginning, but this allows you to develop a strong background knowledge or experience and improve faster moving forward.

3. Decide on a tense. In conversational English, the verb tense rules are simple and straightforward. Only the simple tenses and the present continuous are used. When narrating or writing a story, stick to one tense and make a conscious effort not to switch between tenses.

4. Avoid translating. It’s natural to translate and is inevitable along the way. But not only is it ineffective and detrimental to language progress, but it’s also a clutch that can develop into habitual action. Remember that not all languages express the same things similarly, so direct translations are already a no-no in this regard. Moreover, some languages don’t have tenses. Study examples and grammar tables and model the way you talk after the patterns. It’s a great method to learn language organically.

5. Adapt. Memorization is a good method. A vital one for beginners, but it eventually makes learning mechanical and alienates you from your target language. Books and teachers can only do so much. If you’re learning with a tutor for an hour twice a week, it wouldn’t help a lot without self-study and self-directed improvement. Seek out any opportunity to apply what you’ve memorized and learned in the real world.

The Past Tense: Checking Your Understanding

Below we have provided past tense examples with answers as a review.

Past Tense Exercise:

Fill in the blanks with the correct past form of verb (in brackets).

1. Charice (leave) ……………….. the city 2 years ago.

2. I (wash) ……………….. the dishes when mom arrived.

3. The Japanese gamers (defeat/negative) ……………….. us yesterday.

4. After Adam (pack) ……………….. his lunch, he went to work.

5. By the time Jim arrived at the airport, the gate (close) ………………..

6. Dari (visit) ……………….. us last week

7. Leah (sleep/negative) ……………….. well last night.

8. I (prepare) ……………….. the documents when my boss stepped in.

9. Malaya (cry) ……………….. when we told her the news.

10. Eileen (finish) ……………….. dinner when I phoned her.


1. Charice left the city 2 years ago.

2. I was washing the dishes when mom arrived.

3. The Japanese gamers didn’t defeat us yesterday.

4. After Adam packed his lunch, he went to work.

5. By the time Jim arrived at the airport, the gate had closed.

6. Dari visited us last week

7. Leah didn’t sleep well last night.

8. I had been preparing the documents when my boss stepped in.

9. Malaya cried when we told her the news.

10. Eileen had finished dinner when I phoned her.

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20 Past Tense Sentence Examples:

Read on for more past tense examples of sentences in various functions.

With adverbs of frequency and time expressions (simple past tense)

1. Filjun rarely attended meetings.

2. Hilda wrote her essay with perfect grammar 2 hours ago.

3. Myka laughed the entire time during the seminar last week.

4. She drew the sequence of actions in a storyboard yesterday.

5. Katya answered a lot of questions at the convention last year.

For repeated actions in the past (past continuous)

6. Dolphins were coming from the east every day.

7. Kim was riding his motorbike the whole spring break.

8. Giyoung was cooking stew every day for a whole month.

9. They were asking Junalyn so many questions every time they meet.

10. Diane was checking on Carl’s house twice a day while he was away on business.

First completed action of 2 in a sequence of events (past perfect tense)

11. The song had ended when Andrea looked up. 

12. Raymundo had taken the hard drive before it was fried.

13. Before Jaxon walked in, the staff had seen him strolling on the grounds.

14. When Shane recorded the episode, Lavina had set up the tripod properly.

15. Martina had reached the steps when her dad called out from the front yard.

Completed ongoing action prior to another event (past perfect continuous)

16. Wendy had been studying English when her application was accepted.

17. They had been enjoying the festivities when a rainbow appeared in the sky.

18. Pepper had been barking loudly before we realized someone was at the door. 

19. Mila had been reacting to the announcement when the journalist took photos.

20. Niles had been gathering shells at the beach before the big waves came into view.

Here are 10 common past participle forms of irregular verbs that are conjugated in the Past Tenses

1. Buy – Bought

2. Eat – Eaten

3. Fight – Fought

4. Draw- Drawn

5. Speak – Spoken

6. Take – Taken

7. Ride – Ridden

8. Show – Shown

9. Hide – Hidden

10. Grow – Grown

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This article has covered the fundamental and some advanced concepts about the 4 types of Past Tense. Now you have a workable and powerful knowledge of their proper forms and usage. Our blog has several pages dedicated to the rest of the tenses to provide well-rounded information about English grammar and supplement your English language learning journey. It’s important to study examples and patterns of the tenses and their conjugations and to implement what you’ve learned by applying them to your own language requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions for Past Tense

What is one bad habit when using tenses?

Using verbs inconsistently is a common habit that many language learners develop. This could be caused by directly translating from their native language, especially when the language does not have tenses in its framework. Inconsistent verb usage leads to unclear expression and at its worst, a communication breakdown. Here is an example of using verbs without consistency:

“We were walking to the factory. Suddenly, it rains. Then we will have been walking with difficulty.”

If your initial reaction to the story was “huh?”, then you understand that tenses are important in telling a story. Using multiple tenses in a narrative can be done with a certain level of expertise, but this requires advanced proficiency in English.

What is the difference between Past Continuous and Past Perfect Continuous?

They intersect in a way, which is why the difference can cause some confusion. The main thing you need to remember is that the past continuous talks about actions that were in progress in the past. Meanwhile, the past perfect continuous tense talks about past actions that took place before another action happened or interrupted it.

Do I need to use time expressions all the time?

The short answer is no. When studying grammar, English can be very technical. Verb tense rules become very specific to differentiate their distinctive functions. But in most cases, people involved in conversations know what their topic is and can follow the flow of their discussion even without time expressions. To illustrate, although the sentence “I had been working at the shop.” doesn’t have an exact time expression, it is nevertheless correct. Furthermore, you can still guess that had been working in the store for a certain period sometime in the past. If the person I’m talking to wants to know more, they can always ask follow-up questions.  

What are simple examples of Past Tense?

The simplest examples have been detailed in this article. You can check some of the segments and review them. To explain further, a simple example of any tense follows the basic formula, which is the same verb structure applied in affirmative o positive sentences. In other words, all past tense structure in their affirmative sentence formulas can make simple examples.

How is past perfect different from past perfect continuous?

The past perfect tense verbs are conjugated like so: “I had eaten”. On the other hand, the past perfect continuous is stated in this manner: I had been eating.

When we want to describe an action that started in the past and focus on its completion, we use the past perfect tense. However, if we want to emphasize that actions were in progress at some period previously, the past perfect continuous is the more appropriate tense to use. Review the past tense definition and examples of each type in this article.

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William Landry

William Landry

William is a professional English and ESL teacher with over 15 years of experience. He has taught students of all ages, from children to business executives, and has worked with ESL learners from all over the globe. With a degree in English Education, William has developed curriculum for learners of all levels and interests. He is passionate about helping people learn English effectively and shares his knowledge with the LillyPad community. When he’s not teaching or writing, William enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children.

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