Help! English past tenses are driving me nuts…

English probably is the most insane language in the world. Its grammar is stuffed full of rules which we then have to break because of all the exceptions. It’s not surprising, then, that non-native English speakers get a trifle confused.

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Here’s a note that landed in my inbox recently…

Salut Suze,

As a French-speaking Québécois I still sometimes have difficulty in choosing the correct past tenses in English. Can you help me out here?

Alexandre from Montréal

English past tenses – let’s start with the simpler ones

Before we go any further I am not an English teacher or even an English graduate, which is probably helpful for non-native English speakers because I explain things in simple terms that I can understand … and if I can, you can! If you are an English grammar expert reading this, please forgive my over-simplifications … at least you know my heart is in the right place!

Past tense: the simplest of all

Often, you use the present tense of a verb and add “ed” to the end of it to create the simple past tense.

Examples include (present tense first)

I walk – I walked
I walked into town today.

You show – you showed
You showed me those photos yesterday.

He finishes – he finished
He finished his homework early.

She lives – she lived
She lived across the street from me when we were children.

They play – they played
They played 30 minutes’ extra time

But then of course you get as many exceptions to that rule as you get those obeying it…

I write – I wrote
I wrote a story yesterday

You speak – you spoke
You spoke to her on the train

He runs – he ran
He ran to catch the bus

She reads (pronounced “reeds”) – she read (pronounced “red,” just to make it even more awkward)
She read that new book in one day.

They sing – they sang
They sang a song from “Oklahoma.

Never mind. Ironically, once we get past this barrier of simple present and past tenses and their wild inability to be standard, things get easier. Well, a little bit easier.

And now, just to confuse you further, we have the present perfect tense

Needless to say, although it’s called the present perfect tense it actually means a tense that refers to something that has just happened recently and/or probably is going to remain that way, or happen again soon. That English language lunacy again…

You achieve this by combining the verb “have,” with a past participle.

Often with verbs whose simple past tenses end in “ed,” the past participle is the same. For example:

I walk – I walked – I have walked
I have walked more than 3 miles today.

He finishes – he finished – he has finished
He has finished his breakfast, and now it’s time for him to go to work.

She lives – she lived – she has lived
She has lived in the same house for more than 40 years.

They play – they played – they have played
They have played that team on several occasions.

But here comes another exception, followed by even more …

You show – you showed – you have shown
You have shown how good you are at tennis.

I write – I wrote – I have written
I have written four stories in the last month.

You speak – you spoke – you have spoken
You have spoken to her before, at our last meeting.

He runs – he ran – he has run
He has run this race before, but this is his best time.

She reads (pronounced “reeds”) – she read (pronounced “red,” just to make it even more awkward) – she has read (pronounced “red”)
She has read the novel, “Little Women,” several times.

They sing – they sang – they have sung
They have sung in the same choir for many years.

There are several variants of the present perfect tense, so for more information check out this excellent content here.

The past perfect tense – a little less insane, but not much

This time we change the verb from “have” to “had” and in the same way, combine it with the past participle. The meaning refers to something which took place some time earlier – not just recently. You’ll see more of what I mean in these examples:

I walk – I walked – I have walked – I had walked
I had walked more than 3 miles that day.

He finishes – he finished – he has finished – he had finished
He had finished his breakfast, so it was time for him to go to work.

She lives – she lived – she has lived – she had lived
She had lived in the same house for more than 40 years before she had to move to a retirement home.

They play – they played – they have played – they had played
They had played that team on several occasions before it eventually was disbanded.

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For more writing help if English is not your first language, check out more than 70 further articles right here on #HTWB
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You show – you showed – you have shown – you had shown
You had shown how good you are at tennis by the time you were 10 years old.

I write – I wrote – I have written – I had written
I had written four stories in the previous month.

You speak – you spoke – you have spoken – you had spoken
You had spoken to her before, at our last meeting, but you have probably forgotten that by now.

He runs – he ran – he has run – he had run
He had run this race before, but this was the first time he had trained for it properly.

She reads (pronounced “reeds”) – she read (pronounced “red,” just to make it even more awkward) – she has read (pronounced “red”) – she had read (pronounced “red”)
She had read the novel, “Little Women,” several times and almost had memorised the whole book.

They sing – they sang – they have sung – they had sung
They had sung in the same choir for many years, and were very sad when the choirmaster closed it down.

English language past tenses … it’s not over yet

There are several further variants of past tenses in English and yes, they are confusing, although to be fair these more complex variants can be confusing in other languages, too. If you click here you’ll find some useful – and understandable – explanations of all the past tenses, under the heading “P” .

Good luck! And don’t hesitate to drop a note to suze@suzanstmaur.com if you have any similar questions about writing in English.

 

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