Mastering the English language has many facets, and getting your tenses right is one of the most fundamental.
As with all languages, there are first rules to learn and then nuances and exceptions that we must consider. English tenses can be very challenging, especially when there are so many anomalies, like the difference between have run and had run
“Have run” is present perfect tense, referring to an action that took place before now. “Had run” is past perfect tense and describes something that happened entirely in the past. Both use the past participle “run” together with the verb “have/had.”
Context and timing are both important in knowing which one to choose, and the speaker needs to fully master these to achieve fluency.
This article will explore the past tense in English and consider the rules that govern the four forms of past tense: past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
We’ll also look at past participles and their role in both present perfect and past perfect tense. Finally, we’ll consider some common mistakes and how to avoid them.
What Is Past Tense?
We mainly use the past tense in English to talk about something that has already happened. There are four past tense forms that are each outlined below.
We use the simple past tense as a way to describe:
- Something that happened once in the past.
- Something that happened often in the past.
- Something true over a period of time in the past.
Consider the following examples of simple past tense:
- I traveled to Spain in 2010 — happened once.
- I walked to the park every day when I was younger — happened many times.
- She played field hockey as a teenager — was true for a period.
With most verbs, you create the past tense by merely adding -ed, as in the examples above. However, there are also many irregular verbs with past tense forms that don’t follow this rule.
Any verb that doesn’t conjugate following typical patterns is an irregular verb.
In English, there are hundreds of irregular verbs in everyday use. Below are some of the most common, together with their past tense.
We use past continuous to describe an ongoing past action. It’s always used by combining the past tense of the verb “be” with a verb ending in “ing” (source). We may use it to describe an event that:
- Happened before another action or a specific time.
- Continued for some time or repeatedly.
- Shows change or growth.
Consider the following examples:
They were walking to work when they heard the explosion — happened before another action.
My injured leg was aching — continued for some time.
Her English was improving — shows change.
“Had” and Past Perfect
We use past perfect, sometimes described as pluperfect, to describe something that was completed before another past event. It’s made by combining the verb “had” with the past participle of a verb. We use it to describe:
- An event that began in the past and continued until a specific time.
- An event that happened before a certain point and continued after that.
- An experience up to a particular past point.
Consider the following examples:
When Jack left, we had been friends for twenty years — continued until a specific time.
He had played the drums ever since he was a schoolboy — started in the past and continued.
I hadn’t met her before last week’s event — up to a specific past point.
“Had” and Past Perfect Continuous
We use past perfect continuous in describing an action that started in the past and continued until a specific point in the past. It’s made by combining the verb “had been” with a verb ending in -ing. Consider the following examples:
- She didn’t want to leave Jack. She had been living with him all her life.
- When I eventually arrived at the airport, John had been waiting for two hours.
Summary of Past Tenses
If we return to the verb that this article is focussed on, run, then its four forms of past tense would look like this:
Past simple: I ran to the shops in record time.
Past continuous: I was running after the bus when I slipped.
Past perfect: I had run two miles before she caught me.
Past perfect continuous: By the time I broke my leg, I had been running twice a week for twenty years.
Although we chiefly use the past tense to describe something that happened previously, English will always have some exceptions.
We may also use the past tense when describing something we are imagining or, on other occasions, just to be polite. These are some of the nuances of English that can only be mastered once you have a deep understanding of the language.
When we speak about something that may happen or something we desire, we will often employ the past tense. Consider the examples below:
- I wish he wasn’t so mean.
- If they had a better goalkeeper, they would probably win.
- She would be happy to help if he had asked.
Additionally, there are some unusual examples where we use the past tense out of courtesy. Take a look at the following sentences — these actions aren’t actually happening in the past, but we use that contraction just because it sounds more polite:
Excuse me. I was wondering where to find the marketing department?
I had hoped you’d be able to help me.
What is a Past Participle?
A past participle comes from the past tense of the verb, and we use it to describe an action that has already occurred. We can use it to create verb forms and can also modify nouns or noun phrases (source).
When modifying nouns, a past participle acts as an adjective, as in the following examples.
- She entered through the opened gate.
- He told the children to be careful of the broken glass.
- They had a wonderful holiday in the rented apartment.
When used as a verb form, then the past participle is added to the verb “have” to form either present perfect or past perfect tenses, as in the following examples.
Present perfect: She has run the Boston Marathon 17 times.
Present perfect: They have run five marathons together.
Present perfect: I have run twice around the block.
Past perfect: Before her injury, she had run the Boston Marathon 17 times.
Past perfect: Prior to the London marathon, they had run five marathons together.
Past perfect: I had run twice around the block as part of my warm-up.
Most past participles end in -ed because, in regular verbs, they take the same form as the simple past tense. Below are some examples:
Irregular verbs don’t follow the same patterns, and we often have to learn them individually. Below are some common examples of words where the past tense and past participle are different and don’t follow any pattern.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed in the table above, the past tense of “run” and the past participle of “run” are not the same. Therefore, if we are simply describing something that happened in t
I ran to my grandmother’s side.
However, if we are telling you what happened and we want you to know that running to her side happened further in the past, then we’d say:
I had run to my grandmother’s side before she collapsed and was able to catch her.
The Difference Between Past Tense and Past Participle
The simple past tense describes something that has happened independently of anything else. The past perfect, combining the past participle with the verb “has,” describes something that has occurred prior to something else (source).
It is common for non-native speakers to confuse tenses in English. That’s why it’s important to understand what situations are appropriate for each tense.
As with all language learning, practice makes perfect, and it is essential to hear the language as much as possible so that expressions become second nature.
Consider the following five incorrect sentences, all using the past tense, and see if you can explain why they’re wrong and then correct them.
- I was singing in the shower every day when I was on holiday.
- I was calling her cell at 2:00 pm yesterday.
- I’ve gone to bed at 10:00 pm last night.
- I didn’t pay my tuition fees yet.
- He was driving to the mall last night.
The first sentence incorrectly uses past continuous tense. If we’re talking about something that happened regularly in the past, then we should use the simple past tense. The sentence should read:
I sang in the shower every day when I was on holiday.
The next sentence also incorrectly uses past continuous tense. If describing something that happened once in the past, we should use the simple past tense. The sentence should read:
I called her cell at 2:00 pm yesterday.
The third sentence incorrectly uses the present perfect tense. When describing something that happened at a specific point in the past, we use the simple past tense. The sentence should read:
I went to bed at 10:00 pm last night.
The next sentence incorrectly uses the simple past. When talking about time up until now, we use the present perfect. This sentence should read:
I haven’t paid my tuition fees yet.
The final sentence incorrectly uses the past continuous. This is referring to something that happened once in the past and is the main event.
Although the sentence isn’t grammatically incorrect, it creates an expectation that it is background information, and we then expect to hear the main event afterward.
For example, if it read, “He was driving to the mall last night when the brakes suddenly failed,” then the sentence would be correct. However, to stand on its own, the sentence should read:
He drove to the mall last night.
Past Participle Errors
Another common mistake is using the past tense instead of the past participle when using present perfect or past perfect tenses.
As discussed above, for most verbs, the past tense and past participle are the same, but there are some that are different. Non-native speakers will often make this mistake and may say:
I had ran three miles before work that day.
I have ran 16 Boston marathons.
“Run” is an irregular verb. The past tense is “ran,” but the past participle is “run.” The sentences should read:
I had run three miles before work that day.
I have ran 16 Boston marathons.
For more information on this, read “Has Been” or “Have Been”: When to Use What Tense.
To be fluent in any language means understanding the correct way to say things at the appropriate time. It’s important to know the various forms of English tenses and to have clarity regarding when to use them and in what context.
There are so many irregular English verbs, of which “run” is just one example. You have to put in the time and learn how these verbs conjugate so that you can have the right one at your fingertips at the right time.
You also have to understand when to use each tense so that it comes naturally to you whether to choose “have run” or “had run” in your next sentence.