states and past simpleStates, which may be used as a general description for different states of mind, senses conditions and possession, usually use simple tenses instead of continuous tenses, even when the action or event is temporary or is interrupted. This creates a trick area of English grammar, in the past, present and future, as you may be tempted to use continuous tenses for these verbs. The following article explains how states work in the past tense.

The Past Simple and States

The past simple is used to describe states that happened before now, for instance with to have (usually showing possession) and to be (usually showing emotions or conditions).

  • I had two dresses.
  • He was very sad yesterday.
  • They didn’t understand why the car would not start.

The past simple does not always tell us the state finished, like most past simple actions or events. It may represent an ongoing state, or a state that was interrupted. It simply tells us that the state happened in the past.

  • She seemed merry when I saw her.
  • The bathroom smelt very strange last time I was there.
  • Your hair looked fantastic.
  • They didn’t understand why the car would not start.

In these cases, the states were ongoing, and may not have ended, but it is important to use the past simple and not the past continuous here.

There are many common state verbs that use the simple tenses; they can be grouped to demonstrate states of mind (suppose, think, believe, understand, know, want, love, hate, need, like, prefer), existence or possession (be, have, exist, belong, own) and senses (feel, smell, seem, taste, appear, look). Learn these examples, and be careful to use the simple tenses for them, and it will become clear when similar verbs are appropriate.

This tip was taken from my book, The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide – if you’d like to learn more, please check out the book in full (and subscribe to my mailing list for ongoing free lessons on the blog).

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