Possibilities of expressing the past

(How to describe the past in English)

Table of contents – ways to express the past

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Ways to express the past
  2. Other tenses and particularities
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What expressions and forms express the past?

The English language offers multiple possibilities to describe the past. Depending on the context, different forms or tenses can be chosen. However, for certain representations, there is often merely one particular way to express it. Compare the following options:

  • The most frequent choice is the past tense, which represents events that occurred in the past, are completed, and theoretically no longer have any connection to now, the present time. These may also have been ongoing at a specific point in the past (see the comparison of past simple and continuous for details):
    • “We had a lot of fun yesterday.”
      • A familiar utterance about yesterday that no longer has a connection to now.
    • “It was raining when we wanted to leave.”
      • Likewise, a statement about a past event, but the process (raining) was taking place during a specified past time.
  • Another form of the past, which is not used so often, is the past perfect. It is, however, necessary to express earlier (preceding) events. These can be events, happenings, or occurrences that took place before a past point in time:
    • “Carla had never been to Canada before she moved there.”
      • The visit to Canada happened earlier and is grammatically in the past perfect simple. It occurred (or instead did not occur) before the actual move.
    • “We had been waiting about six hours until the plane finally arrived.”

What other tenses or forms refer to the past?

Besides the typical past tenses, it is possible to use other tenses for the past. The following ones are special:

  • Presenting the past with the present tense (often with the present simple) is somewhat unusual but quite common. When this happens, we speak of the historical or scenic present, which mostly appears in written and oral renditions:
    • “You know, yesterday I was just watching TV, then suddenly the doorbell rings, and who is there? It’s Mike with his new girlfriend.”
    • “The young girl was sitting in the room, not knowing what to do. Her best friend comes in and asks her, ‘What is going on?’”
  • Another formulation for the past is the phrase ‘used to + infinitive’, which expresses past habits or states that were valid for a more extended period of time in the past. Grammatically, the form belongs to the past simple; its speciality is that it exclusively refers to the past:
    • “All my friends and me, we used to play in the forest when we were young.”
    • “That area there used to be a big shopping mall.”
  • A further possibility is to refer to unreal things in the past. These are events that did not take place but could have. For this, the if clause type 3 is the typical choice:
    • “If you had been a bit nicer, they would have invited you to the birthday party.”
    • “Jamie wouldn’t have got the job if his brother hadn’t worked at that company.”

Further explanations referring to the ‘Ways of expressing the past’

The following explanations refer to the topic ‘Possibilities to express the past in English grammar’ and may be helpful for you too: