Abstract Traditional analyses of the past tense such as Reichenbach's (1947) and Comrie's (1985) assign a single semantic structure to the past tense and do not distinguish between absolute and relative past tenses in English. In the present article it is argued that we cannot do without the notion of a relative past tense. Ten empirically based arguments are adduced in support of this. The author also discusses six possible tests to distinguish between absolute and relative past tenses in concrete examples and points out that the analysis has some important theoretical implications. He argues that the distinction between absolute and relative tenses requires a model of the English tense system that is based on the concept of temporal domain, and that the traditional analysis of the meaning of the past tense morpheme (viz. ‘Event time anterior to speech time’) stands in need of qualification.