He decided, he was deciding, he’s decided: choosing the correct past tense

Emilija Manevska/Moment/GettyImages

by Liz Walter

English has several ways of talking about the past, and it can often be difficult to decide which one to use. In this post, I am going to look at three very common past forms: the past simple (he decided), the past continuous (he was deciding), and the present perfect (he’s/he has decided) and try to give some simple advice on which form to use.

Let’s start with how to choose between the past simple and the past continuous. The basic difference is that we use the past simple for actions that are finished. The past continuous, as its name suggests, is for actions that are continuing:

Milo ate the pizza. (the pizza has gone)

Milo was eating the pizza. (there was still some pizza left)

When we use the past simple and the past continuous in the same sentence, the continuous verb describes an ongoing, background action, while the past simple verb describes a completed action that interrupts it or happens during it. We often use the words when and while in these sentences.

She was reading a book when she heard a strange noise.

While we were waiting for Harry, we played a game of cards.

Remember that there are some verbs (e.g. know, believe, like, want) that are almost never used in continuous tenses, even when they describe things that continue:

I believed she was in France.

I was believing she was in France.

Now let’s look at choosing the past simple or the present perfect. There are three main ways in which they are different. Firstly, we use the present perfect when an action started in the past but is still continuing now. Compare the following:

I’ve worked here for five years. (I still work here now.)

I worked there for five years. (I don’t work there now.)

The second important difference is that we use the past simple for specific actions and the present perfect to talk about actions when it’s not important when they happened. Compare the following:

I’ve read that book three times. (It doesn’t matter when, and I may read it again in the future.)

I read the document three times to make sure I understood it. (I am talking about a specific occasion when I read it.)

We often use the present perfect with ever, never, already and yet:

Alex has never been to France.

Have you done your homework yet?

The third difference is that we use the present perfect when an action affects the present. Compare the following:

I can’t walk because I’ve hurt my leg. (It affects the present.)

I fell off my bike and hurt my leg. (We are not being told of any effect on the present.)

Choosing the wrong past tense is a very common learner error. I hope this post will make things a little clearer!

31 thoughts on “He decided, he was deciding, he’s decided: choosing the correct past tense

  1. BRIKI

    Yes this post makes the things clearer but I am a bit skeptical for the différence between the présent Perfect (simple) and the présent Perfect continuous in the exemple ‘I ‘ve worked here five years’.Why not ‘I have been working five years’.?

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, you are correct that ‘I’ve been working here for five years’ is also correct. There are many situations like this where you could use either – this post was intended more to help students avoid common mistakes, in this case using past simple where they should use pres perfect (or, as you say, pres perf continuous).

    2. Philippe Gueissaz

      You would say “I’ve been working here for the past five years” as a statement or as an answer to a question whilst actually doing your work?

      1. Liz Walter

        In any situation, as long as you still have the same job. If you say ‘here’, you have to actually be there, otherwise you’d need to say ‘there’.

  2. Thank you, Liz, for the explanation. It is amazing.

    ‘The other thing is I never divulge what the president told me’ is a sentence from the Washington Times.
    ‘The other thing is I’ve never divulged what the president told me’ is a sentence I make up.
    Some people explain the difference between the two sentences:
    When ‘never’ goes with the present tense, the person is certain he didn’t tell anyone, isn’t telling and won’t tell what the president told him.
    When ‘never goes with the present perfect tense, the person haven’t told anyone about it, but he isn’t certain if he will tell someone afterwards.

    Does the difference exist?

    1. Liz Walter

      I think in this particular case you are right that the present perfect could leave open the possibility that the speaker might one day tell. But I think the distinction is more context/content driven than grammatical.

  3. Wilson H

    According to the essay, “I worked there for five years.” means I don’t work there now. Is this always true? Perhaps I am talking about my past experience. I worked there for three years. I left there for health reasons. But last month, I was offered a position by the manager there, and I started working last Monday.

    1. Let’s say I worked in the company from 2010 to 2015 and left the job. I got the job back in 2017 and am still doing the job.
      I think I can say I’ve worked there for 8 years, but left the job from 2015 to 2017 for health reasons.
      Or I worked in the company for 5 years, but quit for health reasons. Now I have worked here for another two years since I got the job back in 2017.
      I feel explanation is needed in your context.

      Just my 2 cents. 🙂

    2. Liz Walter

      Yes, in the context you have given, that would be correct. But if you *only* had the sentence ‘I worked there for five years.’, the person you are speaking to would certainly infer that you didn’t work there now. So in the case you’ve given, you could also say something like ‘I’ve worked her for four years if you include the 6 months when I was off sick.’

    1. margot berning

      Hello Maryem,

      Yes, it is! Two reasons: Your use of the present perfect here throws the focus onto the current state of affairs, the result, namely the fact that things are clearer for you now. The present perfect also adds a sense of immediacy. The action (making things clearer) has just happened; there is no disconnect between now and the action.
      Could I just say, though, that your use of ‘post’s’ is a little unusual? It is effectively what we say, but when it’s written the sense is not immediately clear.

      Good luck!

      1. Maryem Salama

        Thank you,margot
        I am afraid that the idea of the last two sentences does not sound clear for me. Could you please clarify it?

    2. Liz Walter

      Hi Maryem. I think that Margot may mean that it would be more usual to use the full form ‘post has’ – it’s not wrong to write a contraction, but we tend to use that contractions more with pronouns (he’s, it’s etc) than with nouns. But yes, the use of the present perfect is correct!

  4. michael lopez

    On Wed, Dec 26, 2018, 7:02 PM About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog Liz Walter posted: ” by Liz Walter English has several ways of talking > about the past, and it can often be difficult to decide which one to use. > In this post, I am going to look at three very common past forms: the past > simple (he decided), the past continuous (he was ” >

  5. Listen

    He knows what you see and collect. Maybe (he is) trying to get real communication. ( he’s learned that’s the only way someone’s honest). He just wants a straight forward document. Both sides walk away. Present future or past tense.

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