We use the past simple to talk about past events in chronological order; i.e. for the story’s main events.
- When she opened the door, she pretended we weren’t there and went to her room.
- He called me and told me to go, but he wasn’t there when I arrived.
We also use the past simple to talk about past habits or past states.
- We often went to the bar for a drink before dinner.
- He really liked sport and was very fit.
We use the past continuous the set the scene in a story.
- Last night I was walking home and listening to my iPod when …
- The sun was shining and lots of tourists were lying on the beach. Suddenly …
We use the past continuous for actions in progress in the past or longer actions interrupted by shorter actions in past simple.
- After dinner, I went into the living room and saw that she was crying.
- When she opened the door, we were talking about her.
Past perfect simple
We use the past perfect simple to talk about an earlier past: events which happened before the main event.
Earlier single events
We use the past perfect simple to talk about earlier events and experiences, or single actions completed earlier in the past.
- When she opened the door, he had already left.
- I realised that I had been there before.
- When I met her, I had never been in a serious relationship.
- He noticed I had cleaned the car. It was smooth and shiny.
We use the past perfect simple (and not continuous) to say how much or how many we had done of something earlier in the past.
- We had driven 500 miles and we needed some rest.
- How many hours had he slept when you woke him up?
Duration from earlier in the past (stative verbs)
We use the past perfect simple with stative verbs to talk about states or situations that had started earlier in the past. We often use how long, for or since, always, etc.
- The day Anne died, they had been married for 48 years.
- The day I left, I had been in England for exactly 4 years.
- She told me she had always hated her sister.
Past perfect continuous
Duration from earlier in the past (dynamic verbs)
We use the past perfect continuous with dynamic verbs to talk about longer continuous actions that started earlier in the past than the main events of the story.
- I was furious. I had been waiting for him in the cold, and he didn’t call to say he’d be late.
- We had been driving for less than an hour when the car broke down.
Repeated actions from earlier in the past (dynamic verbs)
We use the past perfect continuous with dynamic verbs to talk about repeated actions from earlier in the past.
- I couldn’t believe it. She had been writing a letter every day for over a year.