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Grammar: Past simple, Used to, Present perfect...

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GRAMMAR 3 October 2016

Past simple

We use the past simple to talk about finished events, actions or situations in the past.  We always use the past when there is an indication of the time when the action took place, e.g. this morning (speaking, for instance, in the afternoon), yesterday, last night, on Monday, last weekend, last month, ten years ago, when I was 12, in 1953, last century, 150 years ago, etc.  

Mr. Smith died ten years ago

Two summers ago, we had a holiday in Scotland.

We went to Mary’s house last Sunday.

When I lived in Manchester, I worked in a bank.

What time did you wake up this morning?

Yesterday I didn’t have time to do my homework.

The indication of time may not be in the sentence containing the verb in the past simple, but we still use the past simple if the context tells us that we are talking about a past action or event.

I enjoyed the party very much (we are talking about a party which has now finished)

Who wrote Hamlet? (Hamlet is a finished work!)

To be born (“nascere”) is a passive verb and is usually used in the past form. Sometimes it can be used in the present form, but NEVER in the present perfect.

Where were you born?        =        Dove sei nato?

I was born in Chicago.        =        Sono nato a Chicago.

Jane was born in 1989.        =        Jane e’ nata nel 1989.

ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!  Jane is born in 1989.

Used to

We use used to + infinitive for something that regularly happened in the past, or past situations, which no longer happen or exist.  Sometimes used to can be used instead of the past simple.  It generally expresses a discontinued habit or past situation which contrasts with the present, or a past routine or pattern (with this second meaning, used to can be replaced by would).

I used to live alone

He used to study very hard. Now he’s very lazy.

We used to live in a small village, but now we live in London.

He used to drink a lot of beer. Now he only drinks tea.

When she lived in London, Jane used to go to the cinema twice a week.


When she lived in London, Jane would go to the cinema twice a week.

Used to can only be used in the past form. It does NOT have a present form. A common mistake is to use used to in the present tense with the meaning of current habit, e.g. I use to go to Bari every day.  This is ABSOLUTELY WRONG.  The meaning of a habitual action (e.g. “sono solito andare a Bari in treno) is expressed by the present simple plus, optionally, the adverb of frequency usually or always.

YES: I (usually/always) go to Bari by train.

ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! I use to go to Bari by train.

YES: He plays cards a lot.

ABSOLUTELY NOT! He uses to play cards a lot.

YES: He used to play cards a lot.

ABSOLUTELY NOT! He was used to play cards a lot

To be used to means “to have a habit of doing something” (“essere abituati a fare qualcosa”), and is followed by a verb in the –ing form.

I am used to living alone        =        Sono abituato/a a vivere da solo/a.

I am used to working in a noisy room    =        Sono abituato/a a lavorare in una stanza rumorosa.

With this meaning, used is an adjective and has the meaning of “accustomed”. It can be followed by a noun or a pronoun.

I am used to noise.

John was used to Mark’s presence.

I’ve lived in Paris for six years, so I am quite used to the traffic.

65. Last week I have worked a lot.          Last week I worked a lot.

73. I know him from 5 years.                 I have known him for 5 years.

71. David worked like teacher for three years.   David worked as a teacher for three years/David has worked as a teacher for three years.

91. The situation is just changed         91. The situation has just changed.

Present perfect or past simple?

The past simple is used every time that we speak of a finished action, no matter when the action actually took place – whether one second, one day or one year ago, we always use the past simple.  The time of the action is mentioned or it can be understood from the context.  We use the present perfect when there is a connection between the past and the present, or when we talk about an indefinite past. The ambiguity between past simple and present perfect depends on the fact that they do not exactly match the two (apparently) corresponding Italian tenses (“passato remoto” and “passato prossimo”).

Last night I saw Jane.                =        Ieri sera ho visto Jane

I saw Jane this morning.        =        Ho visto Jane stamattina                                                         (I am speaking in the afternoon or in the evening)

I’ve seen Jane this morning.        =        Ho visto Jane stamattina                                                                (now it is still morning!)

David worked as a teacher for three years         =        David lavoro’/ha lavorato come insegnante per tre anni (he no longer works now)


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