The Past – Which Tense?

By Rob Lane

In this article, I want to give learners a summary of the past narrative tenses and how they interact. The focus is on the function, why we use them, as this is where learners generally have the most difficulty.

Often, people study these tenses, practice them in grammar exercises but never become comfortable using them in real life. The question is when to use them.

There are three key tenses:

Past Simple

Yesterday, Gustavo prepared dinner.

Past Continuous

Gustavo was preparing dinner when Hilda telephoned.

Past Perfect

Guests came. Gustavo had invited the guests.


Narrative is recounting stories, events and experiences; the English we use every day.

It is possible to speak using only Past Simple, but, it is not very good. Learners at an intermediate level should be able to understand and produce examples of the three tenses.

At an upper-intermediate level, these tenses should be used correctly. If you only use Past Simple, you have work to do!



Past Simple

  • Primary actions and states
  • Single or repeated actions

Past Continuous

  • Context or environment
  • Two actions at the same time but with different duration (one long action, one short)

Past Perfect

  • Past before past – to say an action happened before another action.
  • Explains why or how something was or happened


I arrived for the appointment at 2 pm on Wednesday. The doctor was meeting with another patient, so I sat in the waiting room. I had made the appointment on Tuesday. When they finished, we began our consultation.

Primary actions are in Past Simple.

Secondary actions: They were working (Past Continuous) explains why I sat in the waiting room.

I had made an appointment (Past Perfect) explains why I was there.


Often, Past Continuous and Past Perfect are used to answer questions in conversation.

A.      When I arrived, I had to wait. I went to the waiting room.

B.      Why was it necessary to wait?

A.      The doctor was speaking to another patient.

B.      Did the doctor know about your appointment?

A.      Yes, I had made the appointment the previous day.


In conversation, it is difficult to know which tense to use. The function is the most difficult aspect to master.

You should:

Read and understand the function and structure of the tense.

Compare the tense to other, similar  tenses.

Do repetitive practice to become familiar with the structure (use a practice grammar book)

Write typical dialogues to improve your understanding of functions of tenses.

Begin introducing the tenses in real conversation.


Other examples:

A. I met Adam yesterday. He was very happy.

B. Why was he happy?

A. He had received some good news.

B. Did you speak for long?

A. No, it wasn’t possible because he was working.


It was a beautiful day. (State) The sun was shining and the birds were singing in the trees. (Context) When I arrived, Sarah was reading a book. (Short action, long action) We walked along the river to the coffee shop. (Primary action) Sarah studied the menu. I knew what I wanted to order because I had been there many times before that. (Explains how I knew what I wanted). We had coffee and cakes. After two hours, we parted and returned home.