The past tense (abbreviated) is a grammatical tense that places an action or situation in the past of the current moment (in an absolute tense system), or prior to some specified time that may be in the speaker's past, present, or future (in a relative tense system). Not all languages mark verbs for the past tense (Mandarin Chinese, for example, does not); in some languages, the grammatical expression of past tense is combined with the expression of mood and/or aspect (see tense–aspect–mood). Some languages that mark for past tense do so by inflecting the verb, while others do so by using auxiliary verbs (and some do both).
The European continent is heavily dominated by Indo-European languages, all of which have a past tense. In some cases the tense is formed inflectionally as in English see/saw or walk/walked and as in the French imperfect form, and sometimes it is formed periphrastically, as in the French passé composé form. Further, all of the non-Indo-European languages in Europe, such as Basque, Hungarian, and Finnish, also have a past tense.
In English, the so-called simple past form, sometimes called the preterite, is a true tense in that its use always places the action in the past. The present perfect form is an aspect that relates the past to the present; it specifies a present state that results from past action, and as such it is a form of present tense even though it makes reference to past action. It can be altered to move the time that the state is experienced to the past. The other basic form of English verbs is the progressive aspect form, which shows ongoing action; this too can be altered to place the action in the past. English also has two forms, one of them unique to the past, that indicate past habitual action.
The other past habitual form uses the auxiliary verb would (which has other uses as well). For example, Last June I would go there daily conveys repetitive action. When this form is used, it must be accompanied by an explicit time frame (so for example I would go there. does not occur unless the time frame has already been specified). This form is negated as in Last June I would not go there daily, and it is made interrogative as in Last June, would you go there daily?.
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 (e.g., 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 is somewhat similar to the English usage of the preterite and the present perfect.
Dutch also has 2 main past tenses:
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 form similar to that of German but used only for past habitual or past progressive contexts like "I used to..." or "I was doing...". 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 both West and East Slavic, verbs in the past tense are conjugated for gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) and number (singular, plural).
French has numerous forms of the past tense including but not limited to:
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 but instead have a form of perfect derived from a word meaning "to finish". Others, such as Ewe, distinguish only between future and non-future.
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 part of the same area with inflectional past-marking that extends into Europe, whereas more westerly Nilo-Saharan languages often do not have past tense.
Past tenses are found in a variety of Asian languages. These include the Indo-European languages Russian in North Asia and Persian, Tajik, Urdu, and Hindi in Southwest and South Asia; the Turkic languages Turkish, Turkmen, Kazakh, and Uyghur of Southwest and Central Asia; Arabic in Southwest Asia; Japanese; the Dravidian languages of India; the Uralic languages of Russia; Mongolic; and Korean. Languages in East Asia and Southeast Asia typically do not distinguish tense; in Mandarin Chinese, for example, the particle 了le when used immediately after a verb instead indicates perfective aspect.
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 tenses can have specialised mythological significance and uses.
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 time relative to a reference point that may not coincide with 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.
In Belizean Creole, past tense marking is optional and is rarely used if a semantic temporal marker such as yestudeh "yesterday" is present.
Singaporean English Creole (Singlish) optionally marks the past tense, most often in irregular verbs (e.g., go → went) and regular verbs like accept which require an extra syllable for the past tense suffix -ed.
Hawaiian Creole English optionally marks the past tense with the invariant pre-verbal marker wen or bin (especially older speakers) or haed (especially on the island Kauai). (Ai wen si om "I saw him"; Ai bin klin ap mai ples for da halade "I cleaned up my place for the holiday"; De haed plei BYU laes wik "They played BYU last week"). The past habitual marker is yustu (Yo mada yustu tink so "Your mother used to think so").