Verb past tenses

In this installment of English Excellence we examine the widespread uncertainty about how and when to use the various forms of a verb’s past tense. The chart below should help make that clear. 

Which one is correct?

“The candidate had filed his application yesterday.”


“The candidate filed his application yesterday.”

Read to find out.

  • NOTE – it is common in Singapore to use the past perfect “had” when describing a single action that has been completed. This is not correct as used in international English. A single completed action requires the simple past. Correct: “The candidate filed his application yesterday.” Not correct: “The candidate had filed his application yesterday.” 
Name of verb tense Idea meant to express Example Grammatical Form
Past Simple An action has started and finished in the past. Many tourists visited the castle. [VERB+ed] or irregular verbs
Past Continuous An action was in progress over an unspecified period of time in the past when a second action occurred. The salesman was helping the customer when the thief came into the store. At 6 o clock this morning I was sleeping. was/were + present participle
Past Perfect An action in the past was completed when a second action occurred or a specific time was reached. George had studied three years in Paris 1. before getting his degree 2. by the end of 2014. had + past participle
Perfect Continuous
An action in the past had been continuing over a specified period of time when a second action occurred or a specific time was reached. Chef Jones had been preparing the restaurant’s fantastic dinners for two years before he moved to Paris. I had been eating dinner for an hour when the doorbell rang had been + present participle
An action or state that either (1) occurred at an indefinite time in the past or (2) began in the past and continues to the present time We have spoken before. (2) He has grown impatient over the last hour. have/has + the past participle

This, of course, raises the question of what the past tense and past participle of a particular verb are. Then, what are the irregular verbs – that have irregular past tenses and do not end in “ed” – and what are their past participles? Also, in speech, which past tenses are vocalized (as in “waited”), and some are not (as in “watched”)? 

In future blogs we will explore these and many other issues of immediate interest to folks who want to improve their written and spoken English. Stay tuned.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive regular language tips from us.

Click here to check out our English class schedule