Understanding tenses: How to write effectively in past tense

Photo by  Amy Hirschi  on  Unsplash .

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash.

You probably learnt about past, present, and future tenses during school. But, as with most elements of English, there’s a little more to tenses than just these three elements. There are four aspects of each tense, making 12 in total. 

What was your favourite class at school? Mine was definitely (obviously) English! I bet you definitely remember learning about past, present, and future tense in your English classes. But, did you know there are four aspects of those three tenses to make 12 in total?

Don’t worry, neither did I. I had a vague idea about ‘past perfect’ but it wasn’t until I started writing this post that I fully understood this topic.

This post originally started as an email for my newsletter, The Write Stuff. My mailing list subscribers will be the first to receive the second instalment explaining present tenses. Subscribers also have exclusive access to my FREE resources library. Sign up below!

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Before we dive in, let’s refresh what tenses are. 

Verb tenses are used to explain the relationship between an action and time. 

The three verb tenses (past, present, future) are further divided into four aspects: simple, progressive, perfect and perfect progressive. More complicated than we were taught in school, right?

Verb tense and time distinctions are a unique feature of every language. These 12 verb tenses can be confusing for anyone learning English as a second language. 
Even native English speakers might not fully understand beyond the three basic tenses because so much of our language use is based on intuition and social conditioning. 

In this post, we’re diving into the four aspects of past tense. Ready?

Simple past

Use this to talk about events or actions completed before this moment in time.

For many verbs, you can use the -ed ending to signal simple past tense. 

I walked to the train station. 

Sally talked to her teacher about the assignment.

However, some words (called irregular verbs) have different past tense forms. 

My friend taught me to use the manual settings on the camera.

I rode my bike to the beach.

Sometimes you may use the phrase ‘used to’ when describing a past event or feeling. In that case, you’ll use the present participle (that’s the formal name for the present tense of the verb you’re using).

James used to swim every morning before work. 

I used to feel scared in thunderstorms. 

Past perfect

Use this tense to talk about an event that happened before something else. 

Past perfect can be a subtle way to signal the sequence of past events. It’s defined by the use of ‘had’ before the past participle. 

It wasn’t until I got to the checkout I realised I had forgotten to bring my wallet. 

When I opened the door I saw my dog had chewed my trainers. 

You can use both past perfect and simple past in the same sentence. In that case, you would use a verb in past perfect to signal that action happened before others in the same sentence described by simple past verbs. 

Remember, past perfect conveys a sequence of events and using it implies readers can expect more information. 

Past continuous

Use this when referring to an ongoing event, or an event which began or happened in the past. It can also describe an event that was interrupted. 

For past continuous, combine the past tense form of ‘to be’ (was or were) with the present participle (the present form of your verb, a word ending in ‘-ing’). 

The fire was burning across four paddocks. 

I was talking to Freya when Amber arrived. 

If you’re writing about two events that happened at the same time, you can use past continuous to describe the longer event. 

John dropped his books while he was running for the bus.  

I saw a musical while I was visiting London. 

Past perfect continuous

Use this tense for actions which started in the past, continued, and then ended in the past. 

Use ‘had been’ and the present participle verb to construct sentences with past perfect continuous. 

I had been working at the company for three months when I met the CEO. 

Mark had been going to the gym twice a day before his shoulder injury. 

I hope this post has helped you understand the ways you can use past tense in your writing. Maybe you, like me, were already using these techniques without knowing the technical terms? My email subscribers will be the first to get the next instalment. Sign up below to make sure you’re on the list!

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How to write in past tense