The past tense is a verb tense expressing action, activity, state or being in the past of the current moment (in an absolute tense system), or prior to some other event, whether that is past, present, or future (in a relative tense system).
Each of these may also be found in the progressive (continuous) aspect.
Simple past is formed for regular verbs by adding –ed to the root of a word. Example: He walked to the store. A negation is produced by adding did not and the verb in its infinitive form. Example: He did not walk to the store. Question sentences are started with did as in Did he walk to the store?
Simple past is used for describing acts that have already been concluded and whose exact time of occurrence is known. Furthermore, simple past is used for retelling successive events. That is why it is commonly used in storytelling.
Past progressive is formed by using the adequate form of to be and the verb’s present participle: He was going to church. By inserting not before the main verb a negation is achieved. Example: He was not going to church. A question is formed by prefixing the adequate form of to be as in Was he going?. Past progressive is used for describing events that were in the process of occurring when a new event happened. The already occurring event is presented in past progressive, the new one in simple past. Example: We were sitting in the garden when the thunderstorm started. Use is similar to other languages' imperfect tense.
Present perfect simple is formed by combining have/has with the main verb’s past participle form: I have arrived. A negation is produced by inserting not after have/has: I have not arrived. Questions in present perfect are formulated by starting a sentence with have/has: Has she arrived?
Present perfect simple is used for describing a past action’s effect on the present: He has arrived. Now he is here. This holds true for events that have just been secluded as well as for events that have not yet occurred.
Present perfect progressive is formed by prefixing have/has before the grammatical particle been and the verb’s present participle form: We have been waiting. A negation is expressed by including not between have/has and been: They have not been eating. As with present perfect simple, for forming a question, have/has is put at the beginning of a sentence: Have they been eating?
Present perfect progressive is used for describing an event that has been going on until the present and may be continued in the future. It also puts emphasis on how an event has occurred. Very often since and for mark the use of present perfect progressive: I have been waiting for five hours / I have been waiting since three o’clock.
Furthermore, there is another version of past tense possible: past perfect, similar to other languages' pluperfect tense.
Past perfect simple is formed by combining the simple past form of to have with the simple past form of the main verb: We had shouted. A negation is achieved by including not after had: You had not spoken. Questions in past perfect always start with had: Had he laughed?
Past perfect simple is used for describing secluded events that have occurred before something else followed. The event that is closer to the present is given in simple past tense: After we had visited our relatives in New York, we flew back to Toronto.
Past perfect progressive is formed by had, the grammatical particle been and the present participle of the main verb: You had been waiting. For negation, not is included before been: I had not been waiting. A question sentence is formed by starting with had: Had she been waiting?
If emphasis is put on the duration of a concluded action of the past, since and for are signal words for past perfect progressive: We had been waiting at the airport since the 9 P.M. flight. / They had been waiting for three hours now.
German uses two forms for the past tense.
In South Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the preterite is mostly used solely in writing, for example in stories. Use in speech is regarded as snobbish and thus very uncommon. South German dialects, such as the Bavarian dialect, as well as Yiddish, and Swiss German have no preterite, but only perfect constructs.
In certain regions, a few specific verbs are used in the preterite, for instance the modal verbs and the verbs haben (have) and sein (be).
In speech and informal writing, the Perfekt is used (eg, Ich habe dies und das gesagt. (I said this and that)).
However, in the colloquial language of North Germany, there is still a very important difference between the preterite and the perfect, and both tenses are consequently very common. The preterite is used for past actions when the focus is on the action, whilst the present perfect is used for past actions when the focus is on the present state of the subject as a result of a previous action. This corresponds to the English usage of the preterite and the present perfect.
In non-Germanic Indo-European languages, past marking is typically combined with a distinction between perfective and imperfective aspect, with the former reserved for single completed actions in the past. French for instance, has an imperfect tense of similar form to that of German but used only for past habitual contexts like "I used to...". Similar patterns extend across most languages of the Indo-European family right through to the Indic languages.
Unlike other Indo-European languages, in Slavic languages tense is independent of aspect, with imperfective and perfective aspects being indicated instead by means of prefixes, stem changes, or suppletion. In many West Slavic and East Slavic languages, the early Slavic past tenses have largely merged into a single past tense. In West Slavic, person is indicated by conjugation of an auxiliary verb (employing the verb 'to be'). In Polish this auxiliary has evolved into a clitic which may attach to the main verb or alternatively to other parts of the sentence such as pronouns or conjunctions. Languages using either an auxiliary verb or clitic often drop the pronoun as it is not necessary to indicate person. By contrast, East Slavic languages have dropped the auxiliary completely and indicate person by means of obligatory pronouns. In both West and East Slavic, verbs in the past tense are conjugated for gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) and number (singular, plural).
Whilst in Semitic languages tripartite non-past/past imperfective/past perfective systems similar to those of most Indo-European languages are found, in the rest of Africa past tenses have very different forms from those found in European languages. Berber languages have only the perfective/imperfective distinction and lack a past imperfect.
Many non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages of West Africa do not mark past tense at all and only have a form of perfect tense derived from a word meaning "to finish". Others, such as Ewe, distinguish only between future and non-future, comprising both present and past time frames.
In complete contrast, Bantu languages such as Zulu have not only a past tense, but also a less remote proximal tense which is used for very recent past events and is never interchangeable with the ordinary past form. These languages also differ substantially from European languages in coding tense with prefixes instead of such suffixes as English -ed.
Other, smaller language families of Africa follow quite regional patterns. Thus the Sudanic languages of East Africa and adjacent Afro-Asiatic families are past of the same area with inflectional past-marking that extends into Europe, whereas more westerly Nilo-Saharan languages often do not have past
Past tenses in the sense used within European languages are found within the vast Asian landmass only among the Dravidian languages and languages of the northern half, such as the Uralic, Mongolic, as well as Japanese and Korean. Languages in southeast Asia typically do not distinguish past tenses, though in some cases special particles are used to indicate completion of an event (such as Chinese le).
Among Native American languages there is a split between complete absence of past marking (especially common in Mesoamerica and the Pacific Northwest) and very complex tense marking with numerous specialised remoteness distinctions, as found for instance in Athabaskan languages and a few languages of the Amazon Basin. Some of these tense can have specialised mythological significance and use.
A number of Native American languages like Northern Paiute stand in contrast to European notions of tense because they always use relative tense, which means tense relative to a reference point other than the time an utterance is made.
Papuan languages of New Guinea almost always have remoteness distinctions in the past tense (though none are as elaborate as some native American languages), whilst indigenous Australian languages usually have a single past tense without remoteness distinctions.