Free English Lessons

How to Talk About the Past in English – Video

Download PDF

In this lesson, you can learn how to talk about the past in English.

Talking about the past includes many things. Do you want to talk about interesting experiences you’ve had, tell a funny story, or talk about something you regret in the past?

In this lesson, you’ll see the words, phrases and structures you need to talk about the past in clear, fluent English.

QUIZ: How to Talk About the Past in English

Now, test your understanding of the lesson with this 20-question quiz.

You’ll see your score at the end. After you finish the quiz, click the ‘view questions’ button to see the correct answers and explanations.

1. Talking About Experiences in the Past

Martin: Have you ever been bungee jumping?

Stephanie: No, I haven’t. I’ve been skydiving, though. What about you? Have you ever done any extreme sports like that?

M: Does windsurfing count? I’ve tried windsurfing, although that was a long time ago.

S: I think windsurfing definitely counts! I’ve seen people doing it and they were going at crazy speeds. I’ve never done anything like that myself.

M: Skydiving sounds very extreme to me. Where did you do it?

S: It was in Spain. I did a tandem jump. It was fun, but I’m not sure I’d do it again.

How to Talk About the Past in English - skydiving image

You probably know already that English has different past verb forms to talk about the past in English in different ways.

However, you often need a present verb form to talk about the past. You saw an example in the dialogue you just heard.

Use the present perfect to talk or ask about experiences in the past, but only if you don’t say a time! For example:

  • I’ve tried windsurfing.
  • I’ve never been bungee jumping.
  • Have you ever been skydiving?

Of course, you can change these to talk about different things, like this:

  • I’ve read ‘The Idiot’.
  • I’ve never drunk whisky.
  • Have you ever grown your own vegetables?

However, as soon as you mention a time, you need to switch to a past tense. For example:

  • I went windsurfing three years ago.
  • I didn’t drink a lot last night.
  • Did you eat a lot of sushi when you were in Japan?

For this reason, when you’re talking about life experiences, you often start with the present perfect, and then switch to a past tense when you mention a specific time.

For example, someone might ask you, Have you ever been to Australia?

You might answer, Yes, I went there two years ago, for my friend’s wedding.

The question is present perfect, because it’s asking about experiences without mentioning a time. The answer mentions a time—two years ago—and so you need the past simple.

Next, let’s see how you can talk about differences between the past and the present.

2. Comparing the Past to the Present

S: Wow! You used to have a beard? You look so different!

M: Yeah! That was during my punk rock phase.

S: Really? Did you use to be in a band or something?

M: Yes, but it wasn’t anything big. There were a few of us who were all mates, and we would play in pubs or small clubs.

S: So, what were you? Singer? Guitar?

M: Drummer! I used to play the drums.

S: And now? You don’t play any more?

M: No, I gave up.

How to Talk About the Past in English - play the drums

In English, there are past structures which you can use to show a difference between the past and the present. Can you remember any of these from the dialogue?

You can use used to to talk about something which was true in the past, but isn’t true now. For example:

  • He used to have a beard. –> He had a beard in the past, but he doesn’t have one now.
  • I used to live in Berlin. –> I lived in Berlin in the past, but I don’t live there now.

You can also use the negative form—didn’t use to—to talk about things that weren’t true in the past, but are true now. For example:

  • They didn’t use to get on so well. –> They didn’t get on well in the past, but they do now.
  • I didn’t use to wear glasses. –> I wear glasses now, but I didn’t in the past.

You can also make questions:

  • Did you use to play a musical instrument?
  • Didn’t he use to work here?

You can also use would to talk about actions or habits which you did in the past, but you don’t do now. For example:

  • When we got home, Mum would make us beans on toast and then we’d watch cartoons.
  • There was this bakery near the office where I would go every lunchtime to get a sandwich and chat to the other regulars.

Finally, you can also use a present verb plus any more. This has a similar meaning to used to. Let’s look:

  • She doesn’t live here any more. –> She lived here in the past, but she doesn’t live here now.
  • I don’t have time to listen to music any more. –> I had time in the past, but now I don’t.

What about you? How is your life different now? Let’s practice: pause the video and make three sentences about how your life is different to the past. Try to use all of the language from this section: used to, would and any more.

You can say your sentences out loud, or write them down. Pause the video and do it now!

In the next two sections, you’re going to see useful language for telling a story when you want to talk about the past in English.

3. Setting the Scene of a Story

M: Oh! Have I told you what happened to us on our trip?

S: No! What happened?

M: It’s a really crazy story. So, we were sitting on the bus, ready to leave…

S: Where were you going?

M: Sofia. Anyway, the weather was awful. It was raining so hard you couldn’t even see out of the window, and…

S: Who were you travelling with?

M: With my wife. We were planning to visit some old friends who…

S: Where was the bus leaving from?

M: From Athens. Look, can I tell my story, or not?

S: Oh, sorry…

When you tell a story, you need to set the scene. What does ‘set the scene’ mean?

It means you need to describe the background of the story. What was happening at the start of the story? Who was there, and what were the people in your story doing at the start?

To give background to a story, you use the past continuous. For example:

  • We were sitting on the bus, ready to leave.
  • It was raining so hard you couldn’t even see out of the window.

If you’re telling a story from your own life, you’ll often start with one or two sentences in the past continuous to set the scene. You might say:

  • I was living in a small apartment at the time.
  • I was driving home after work.

This isn’t just useful when you’re telling long stories; you can use this any time you’re giving a slightly longer answer about the past, for example in a job interview or an IELTS exam.

However, if you do want to tell a longer story, there are some other things you’ll need to know.

4. Showing the Sequence of Events in the Past

S: Did I tell you about my driving test?

M: No, what happened?

S: I passed! You know, I took it last week, and I hadn’t taken any lessons. Not one!

M: No way! But, you must have practiced at least?

S: No! I had only driven a car twice in my life.

M: How on earth did you pass?

S: It was rush hour. We drove out of the test centre, and then we sat in a traffic jam. All of the streets were totally stuck. I made three left turns, and finally we arrived back at the test centre. I just drove around the block once!

M: And that counts as a pass?

S: Hey, I didn’t make any mistakes.

M: So what happened next? Did you drive home?

S: Well…

M: What happened?

S: I tried, and I had a very small accident. I mean, I don’t think it even counts as an accident.

M: Maybe you should take some driving lessons.

S: Very funny.

How to Talk About the Past in English - red car

When you start a story, you usually say when these things took place. You’ll say something like:

  • Last week…
  • This happened two years ago, in summer.
  • So, yesterday, I was walking down the street…

This time reference ‘fixes’ the time when your story starts.

What does this mean?

Well, think about the story you heard in the dialogue. The time reference was last week.

During the story, I talked about things that happened before the start of the story, even further in the past. I also talked about things that happened in the story, meaning they happened after the start of the story.

Do you know how to talk about these two different ideas? Do you remember from the dialogue?

To talk about things that happened before the start of the story, use the past perfect: had done.

For example:

  • I hadn’t taken any driving lessons.
  • I had only driven a car twice in my life.

The story was about taking a driving test. You need to use the past perfect to talk about things that had happened before the start of the story.

Let’s see another example:

  • When I was 25, I quit my job and decided to train as a pilot. I had always wanted to learn to fly.

Here, you have a time reference which ‘fixes’ the start of the story: when I was 25.

Then, you use the past perfect to talk about things which happened before that time, further in the past.

If you’re talking about the events of your story, just use the past simple, like this:

  • We drove out of the test centre.
  • We sat in a traffic jam for ages.
  • I had a small accident on the way home.

Using these verb tenses, you can make it clear when things happened in the past, and whether something happened before or after something else.

Do you have a funny story you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!

Let’s look at one more topic to talk about the past in English.

5. Talking About Regrets in the Past

M: Do you speak any other languages?

S: Not really. I used to speak Spanish, but I haven’t used it for years.

M: I wish I’d started learning other languages when I was younger. It’s so much easier if you start earlier.

S: Yeah, I know what you mean. If only I’d kept my Spanish going…

M: Why don’t you pick it up again? It’d come back.

S: Maybe… You know what, though? I wish I’d spent some time in Latin America when I had the chance. I could have lived there for a year or two, and my Spanish would have got really good.

M: Well, you could still do it, right?

In the dialogue, you saw three different forms you can use to talk about regrets in the past. Do you remember them?

First, you can use wish plus the past perfect to talk about something you regret. For example:

  • I wish I’d learned other languages when I was younger.
  • I wish I hadn’t said that.

Remember that here you’re talking about the opposite of what really happened. If you say I wish I hadn’t said that, you did say something in reality, and now you regret it.

You can also use if only plus the past perfect, like this:

  • If only I’d kept my Spanish going.
  • If only I hadn’t wasted so much time.

The meaning is very similar to wish: you did something, or didn’t do something, in the past, and now you regret it.

Finally, you can sometimes use could have to express regrets in the past, often as part of a longer if-sentence. For example:

  • I could have tried harder.
  • If I hadn’t left things to the last minute, I could have passed easily.

Let’s do one more practice. Think of three regrets that you have. Make three sentences using the language from this section. Try to use all three forms: wish, if only and could have.

Pause the video, and make your sentences now! You can say them aloud, or write them down.

Done? Great! Now, you’ve learned many different ways to talk about the past in English.

When you talk about the past in English, which English past form do you find the most difficult to use? Let us know in the comments, and maybe you’ll get some useful tips!

We hope you enjoyed this spoken English lesson from Oxford Online English. Thanks for watching!

We Offer Video Licensing and Production

Use our videos in your own materials or corporate training

Videos edited to your specifications

Scripts written to reflect your training needs

Bulk pricing available


More English Lessons

English Grammar Lessons

Spoken English Lessons

Send this to a friend