Talking about the Past

What if we want to narrate something that happened in the past? In this case, we will need to know the past tense.

"Talking about the Past" in the English Grammar

Why Do We Use Past Tense?

The past tense is used a lot among English learners or even English native speakers. Without the past tense, we cannot have clear divisions of time periods. Actually, past tense can refer to even the present and future tense. Now if you would like to learn more, follow the article.

Referring to Earlier Actions

Past Simple

The past simple tense shows the action or state that happened at an earlier time.
Whether or not the action continued for a period of time or was repetitive is not important; what's important is that it began and ended. It can be a definite time in the past or it can be indefinite. Look at the examples:

Mary got an F in math on October 13th.

This is an example of an action with a definite time.

Mary was careless.

This is an example describing a state of mind and it is timeless (with indefinite time).

Mary hired a math tutor.

It happened sometimes in the past, again with indefinite timing.

Mary was careless, got an F, and hired a math tutor.

We can express sequence of actions that happened in the past in an orderly fashion but without definite timing.

Mary studied more after that.

Past Continuous

The past continuous shows the time span or repetition of past actions or events and the timing of one activity to another, for example, a background action is described by past continuous, and the action interrupting it would be described by past simple. For example:

Mary was getting bad scores in math.

This is an example of an ongoing action.

Mary was behaving carelessly.

This sentence is describing Mary's temporary state of mind at that period of time.

Mary was taking a math class with a tutor last week.

This example talks about an action with a definite time span.

Mary was taking a math class last Thursday and Friday mornings.

We are describing a repeated action with definite timing.

Mary was studying more after that.

In this example, it's saying that 'Mary' is trying to study harder at least for a while, temporarily.

Using Adverbs in Past Simple Tense

In order to know when and how to use adverbs in a past tense sentence, they are categorized into these groups:

  • a state (They cannot be continuous. They have no action. No adverb.)
  • an instantaneous action (They cannot be continuous. They occur at a single point in time. No Adverb.)
  • an ongoing action with definite time span (They can be both simple and continuous.)
  • a repeated or ongoing action with indefinite time span (They can be both simple and continuous.)

Take a look at some examples:

Mary was always an only-child. (a state)

We cannot say 'Mary was being an only child.'

Mary fell to the ground yesterday. (specific time)

We cannot say 'Mary was falling to the ground yesterday.' Because it was an instantaneous event.

Mary was walking down the street yesterday. = Mary walked down the street yesterday.

Definite Time

Adverbs that show a definite time are used when actions have a specific date or time. Compare the following examples:

Mary was walking to school yesterday.

The action in this sentence has a definite time, it ended when she arrived at school.

She walked to school.

This sentence has no definite adverb (it is timeless).

Indefinite Time

Adverbs that show an indefinite time are used when activities or states happen at some point, but not on a specific time or date. The specific time is not important. The focus is on the activity or state itself. These adverbs show time span or repetition. For example:

She often walked to school.

She was walking to school during the week.

Short or Long Time Span

Short, instantaneous activities are expressed in simple tense not continuous. However, we can express them in continuous form with the use of the verb 'keep.' Look at the examples:

She fell to the ground. (Not She was falling to the ground for a while.)

She kept falling to the ground repeatedly.

Longer or repetitive activities refer to a process and can be described in the continuous tense as well as simple tense depending on what we are trying to put emphasis on. Look at the examples:

She was walking for a while.

She walked for a while.

Now, why this sentence is wrong?

Mary worked in a coffee shop since a month ago.

'Since a month ago' expresses a definite time. For definite times, we can use past continuous. Or we can change the time into indefinite and use past simple. Check out these examples:

Mary was working in a coffee shop for a month. (definite time)

She worked in a coffee shop a month ago. (indefinite time)

Using Present Perfect to Talk about Something That Started in the Past and Continues in the Present

A Series of Past Events

If we want to talk about a series of events (one activity that happens after another), we use past simple tense. The focus is on what happened, not when.
The events are expressed in the order that they occurred. Adverbs such as 'first, second, third, finally,' etc. may be used. For example:

First Mary was careless, then she got an F, and finally hired a math tutor.

If we want to emphasize that one past event occurred earlier than another past event, we use past perfect. Only when the effect of the earlier event on the later event is important to our understanding of the relationship of the two events, we use this tense. For example:

Mary had got an F before she hired a math tutor.

Time Span from Past to Present

The past tense expresses an action, event, or state that began and ended in the past. Definite adverbs such as 'last week, a month ago, and in 1998' clarify the activity happened at a definite point in the past. Check out these examples:

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on Saturday 26 April 1986.

Officials closed the site during the 1990s.

The present perfect shows that an action began in the past and continued up to the present and may extend into the future. For example:

The Chernobyl disaster has continued to harm the environment up to now.

The site has remained closed up to now.

Duration vs. Completion

Activities that have a process and happen during a period of time without mentioning the end time can both be expressed by simple and continuous time. When there is no adverb, we understand the time span is indefinite, like an experience sometime in the past. Check out these examples:

Mary has worked in a coffee shop for a month. (continuously)

Mary has been working in a coffee shop for a month. (repetitively)

A completed action has an ending time (a completion time). Usually, we cannot express a completed action with continuous tense. For example:

She has earned 200$ so far.

Adverbs for Present Perfect Tense

Adverbs of definite time are used when actions have starting times and finish times relative to the current moment. Here are the examples:

Mary has just walked to class.

The period of time has ended when she arrived at class.

Mary has been walking to class this morning.

The action is still ongoing, maybe she hasn't arrived at class yet. The period of time will end when she arrives at class.

Adverbs of indefinite time are used when actions or states happen sometimes, but it is not important in the time of speaking. In these sentences, the exact time is not important. The focus is on the activity itself. Here are the examples:

Mary has visited Paris (recently).

Mary has been visiting Paris (temporarily).

Now, can you tell the difference between the two answers:

'What did you do this summer?' 'I have worked at a coffeeshop this summer.' or 'I have worked at a coffeeshop during the summer.'

If you are still working at a coffee shop, use the present perfect continuous with "this summer". If you are talking about a recently completed job, use the past tense, or use the present perfect with the adverb 'recently.' For example:

I worked at a coffee shop this summer. (completed)

I have worked at a coffee shop recently. (completed)

I have been working at a coffee shop this summer. (ongoing)

Try to spot the mistake in these sentences too:

The Chernobyl site has been closed during the last decade.

The correct sentence will be: 'The Chernobyl site has been closed 'for' a decade. Or 'The Chernobyl site was closed during the 1990s.'

Mary hasn't visited her boyfriend for two months ago.

We have to omit "ago" to make the sentence correct. 'Ago' is used with past simple tense.

Background Activity

The past continuous expresses that an activity or event went on for a while and then ended in the past. The focus is on the timing. The action can be repetitive or continuous and may have been a temporary change from the usual activity.

The past simple tense talks about an action with emphasis on the activity and not its timing. The focus is on the activity.
In a sentence with both simple and continuous past, the past continuous shows the background or sets the scene (secondary action) and the simple past is the main focus (primary activity).

Ongoing or One-time Activity

Verbs in both the past tense and past continuous may express that an activity or event was repetitive—happening multiple times. The difference is that the continuous tense places emphasis on the timing but the past does not. (In such a case, context is required for clues about the timing.) A verb in the past tense can be used for an activity, event, or state that is singular in occurrence—happening once.

Now spot the errors in these sentences:

I took the train when I was living in San Francisco.

I was getting lost several times.

I was living there since June 2010.

Review

Learning the past tense is one of the essentials in English because it helps us talk about events that took place in the past. In this lesson you have learned:

  • Past Simple
  • Past Continuous
  • Present Perfect

Each tense can refer to past events in their own special way. Now let us compare them with each other. Look at the table below:

Past Simple Past Continuous Past Perfect
Earlier Actions
Background
Series of Events
Past to Present
Ongoing and One-time Events

Comments

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