Speaking about the past - introduction


Past actions can be a difficult area for English learners to understand. Especially when French speakers try to translate from French!


When speaking about actions that have happened in the past and the time that they occurred is not important, we use ‘have’ + past participle. These actions have some connection to the present. It could be as an experience – something, even very simple, that we have achieved or experienced in the past that we will keep with us, often as a memory.

It can also be an action that we started in the past and has continued until the present. In this case, we can talk about how long the action has been in progress but with no emphasis on when it started.

However, if the time (date, year, day etc) in the past is necessary to communicate, we would use the simple past form of the verb – e.g. played. We use this form when the action has finished and has no connection to the present, either physically or as an experience we remember.

3 examples:

  • “I have been to Australia”
    This is an experience. I want to communicate that this is something I have done in the past and I remember it, so it is connected to the present. When I went to Australia is not important, only the action is important.
  • “I have lived in Switzerland for 2 years” – for + amount of time
    “I have lived in Swityerland since 2013” – since + when action started

    This is an action that started in the past and has continued (physically) until the present. Here, I want to emphasize the length of the action, not when it started, although it is necessary for us to mention in order to understand the duration.
  • “I went to Australia last year”
    This is the same as example number 1 but notice that we have communicated when the action happened and that it has finished. The important information here is when the action happened.

Personal tip:

Never translate from French when speaking about the past (or anything else, in fact) ;-)

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