English Grammar: Past Auxiliary Verbs

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In English, tenses are formed by conjugating an auxiliary verb plus a standard form of the principal verb. Depending upon the tense, the principal verb may be in the base form, the present participle, or the past participle form. 

Where does he live? -> live = base form
She is preparing dinner at the moment. -> preparing = present participle (i.e. "ing" form)
They've sung that song a number of times. -> sung = past participle

Principal verbs remain in the same form for each subject. However, auxiliary verbs may change.

She wasn't listening to music when I arrived.
They weren't listening to what he said. 

In this case, there is a difference in the helping verb "was/were" in the two sentences. However, "listening", or the present participle, remains the same. 

It is import to focus on the variations in the auxiliary verb to properly use English tenses. This article provides a quick review of the basic tenses used in English to speak about the past moment in time and events or states which have happened up to a past moment in time.


S (subject)
Aux (auxiliary verb)
O (objects)
? (question word, i.e., who, what when, etc.)

In general, using the following patterns to construct sentences in active sentences:

Positive: S + Verb + O
Negative:S + Aux + Verb + O
Question:(?)+ Aux + S + Verb + (O)

Past Simple

Use the past simple when an action is done at a specific point in time in the past. All subjects take the auxiliary verb "did". Remember that the auxiliary verb is dropped in positive sentences when using the past simple. 

She moved to New York last month.
They didn't want to buy a new television last week.
Where did you go on vacation last year?

Past Continuous

Use the past continuous for something that was happening at a precise moment in the past. This form is often used to express an interrupted action in progress. Use the auxiliary verbs "was/were" depending upon the subject. Auxiliary verbs are required in questions, positive, and negative statements.

I was working on the project when you telephoned.
What were you doing when she arrived?
They weren't watching the film when you arrived.

Past Perfect

Use the past perfect for an action that finishes before another action in the past. We often use the past perfect when is giving reasons for a decision made in the past. Use the auxiliary verb "had" with all subjects. The auxiliary verb "had" is used in positive and negative sentences, as well as in questions. 

They had invested their money wisely before they bought the new house.
She hadn't finished speaking when he rudely interrupted her.
Had you checked all your accounts before you made the withdrawal?

Past Perfect Continuous

Use the past perfect continuous to express the duration of another activity up to another point in time in the past. This form is often used to stress impatience or importance of the length of time of the previous activity. In continuous forms, the verb "be" is used as the auxiliary. In perfect forms, "have" is used as the auxiliary. This combination requires the auxiliary string "had been" for all subjects. 

We had been waiting for two hours when Jack finally arrived.
They hadn't been working long when he telephoned.
Had she been telephoning a long time before you arrived?

Past Auxiliary Verbs Review Quiz

  1. Where ____ you go last weekend?
  2. Inge _____ finishing the report when I walked into the room.
  3. I _____ not _____ waiting for a long time when Dan finally arrived.
  4. _____ you sleeping when I arrived last night?
  5. Jennifer _____ not considered that he might decide not to come. 
  6. I'm afraid I _____ not understand your question. What _____ you say?
  7. They had _____ working on the problem for a long time before they solved it. 
  8. Jason _____ not want to make a comment during the conversation.
  9. What _____ he doing when you told him the news?
  10. _____ they prepared the dinner before you arrived?


  1. did
  2. was
  3. had not been
  4. were
  5. had
  6. did / did
  7. been
  8. did
  9. was
  10. had

Continue reviewing auxiliary verbs in present and future tenses to make sure you understand auxiliary verb use in all the tenses in English. 

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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "English Grammar: Past Auxiliary Verbs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/english-grammar-past-auxiliary-verbs-1211113. Beare, Kenneth. (2020, August 27). English Grammar: Past Auxiliary Verbs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/english-grammar-past-auxiliary-verbs-1211113 Beare, Kenneth. "English Grammar: Past Auxiliary Verbs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/english-grammar-past-auxiliary-verbs-1211113 (accessed May 31, 2023).