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When do we use past tenses?

This is a really important topic, so read carefully.

1. Talking about the past


Everyone knows that we use past tenses to talk about past time. Here are some examples:

  • Yesterday I bought a Christmas jigsaw.

  • Last week I went to a brilliant concert.


However, we also use past tenses to talk about the present and the future. Can you think of any examples?


If not, read further.


2. Being polite

Past tenses are often used to be polite, as follows:

  • Would you like a mince pie?

  • Could you close the window please, it’s absolutely freezing in here?

  • You should sign up for the pre-sale if you want to get tickets.

You may have noticed that all the verbs in bold are modal verbs. This is a limited class of verbs. Most students have very little difficulty using these past tense verbs to talk about the present or the future. To be honest, they probably don’t even realise that they are using past tenses to talk about the future. They just learn the phrases and use them.

3. Being hypothetical

This is where things get difficult. English uses past tense verbs to express hypotheticality – to talk about things that are imaginary. Here are some examples.

  • If you found £1000, what would you do?

  • If you saw a bear in the forest, would you be scared?

Neither of these situations refers to a real situation in the past. Instead they both refer to imagined (hypothetical) situations.

In terms of being polite, there are only a few verbs to learn, so this seems to be quite easy for English learners. The hypothetical use of past tense verbs is different though. Any verb can be used to talk about hypothetical ideas and telling the brain to put a verb into the past form to talk about the future just seems counter-intuitive.

However, that’s the way hypothetical ideas are expressed in English. It might seem confusing but once you get the hang of it, it does make sense.

Your homework is as follows:

1.       Explain three ways in which past tense verbs are used in English.

2.      Practice using past tense verbs to talk about hypothetical ideas.


If you want some extra help with question 2, read this blog post here about the #secondconditional

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