Tenses – An Overview

Each event can be described by a different tense according to the emphasis or perspective which is necessary to accurately convey meaning.

1. Past Simple Tense

Past Simple Tense is used to describe the sequence of a narrative. A sequence of events is a narrative or a story. It moves forward in time one step at a time. Each step is naturally in past simple tense in a normal situation. Each event occurs after the other and they are all in the same tense:

He got up.
He walked to the window.
He looked out.
He gazed at the city below him.
He saw a woman.
He recognised her.
It was his girlfriend.

2. Past Continuous Tense

Past Continuous Tense is used to stop the narrative at a particular point and describe details:

The woman was walking along a catwalk.
She was wearing a business suit.
She was going to work.
She was carrying a handbag in one hand.
She was carrying a shoulder bag in her other hand.
She was thinking about her boyfriend.
She was wondering if he was going to ask her to marry him.

We can contrast past simple tense and past continuous tense.

The woman was walking along the catwalk when the man saw her.

Note that “was walking” describes the longer of the two actions and “saw” describes the shorter action. We use these tenses together to describe two simultaneous events but the continuous form is for the longer action and the simple form is for the shorter action. The act of seeing her was shorter than her action of walking along the catwalk.

The Past Continuous Tense emphasises the fact that one simultaneous event is longer than another event:

She was walking along the catwalk when he saw her.

3. Past Perfect Tense

Past Perfect Tense is used to locate an earlier event in a sequence of events.

The man called the woman.
He invited her to dinner.
The woman had already arranged to meet somebody else that night.
She rang to cancel her prior engagement.

Had already arranged to meet” is in past perfect tense because it took place before the man called and before he invited her to dinner.

“She had already arranged to meet somebody else, when her boyfriend called her” or “She arranged to meet somebody else then he called her.”

Look at a further example:

The other appointment was with her best friend.
The friend had already booked a table at a restaurant.
She had to cancel the booking.
She was disappointed.

Again we see an earlier event, “had already booked a table” which comes before “rang to cancel”.

“The friend had already booked a table when the woman rang to cancel their appointment” or “The friend booked a table then the woman rang to cancel.”

Past Perfect Tense emphasises the fact that one event took place earlier:

She had already made an appointment when he called her.

Summary

Past Simple Tense – a simple sequence
Past Continuous Tense – description of details – emphasises simultaneity and length of event
Past Perfect Tense – locating an earlier event in time – emphasises order of events and the fact that one is earlier

4. Present Perfect Tense

This tense is used to highlight an event as an experience which one has had. It is like a headline in a newspaper which is then followed by a narrative in past simple tense like this:

I have been to Italy. I went there ten years ago. I hitchhiked around. It was great.

Note that the anecdote begins with the introductory headline:

I have been to Italy!

which is in present perfect tense.

An anecdote is small personal story.

Then the next verbs are in past simple tense:

Link to the people of Universal City

went
hitchhiked
was


Link to the Time Page

Link to the Grammar page

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