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.)
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!