Mastering Tense in the English Language: The Past

Mastering Tense in the English Language: The Past | Tips on How to Get Your Research Published
As a continuation of my earlier posting on the present tenses of verbs in the English language, I would like to provide some similar advice on the four basic past tenses: the simple past, the past continuous, the past perfect and the past perfect continuous.
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The most straightforward of these past tenses is the simple past or preterite tense, which is also the most commonly used of the English past tenses. Examples include ‘I was angry,’ ‘you did it well,’ ‘she sang in the choir,’ ‘he ran daily’ and ‘they worked at this time every afternoon.’ The simple past is used to describe action or events that occurred in the past and are completely finished. When extra emphasis is required, the simple past of the verb ‘to do’ can be used along with the simple present of the main verb for a slightly different construction: ‘she did sing in the choir’ or ‘they did work in the afternoons.’ ‘Did’ is also used as an auxiliary verb when forming a negative statement, in which case the word ‘not’ should be inserted between the auxiliary verb and the main verb, as in ‘she did not sing in the choir’ and ‘they did not work in the afternoon.’ A question or interrogative sentence in the simple past often uses ‘did’ as well, but before the subject instead of after it, so ‘did she sing in the choir?’ and ‘did he run every day?’ are correct. The verb ‘to be’ behaves a little differently, with the word ‘not’ added after the verb to make the meaning negative: ‘you were ill’ thus becomes ‘you were not ill.’ For a question, the simple past of the verb simply changes places with the subject, so ‘were you ill?” is the correct structure.
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The past continuous tense is formed by using the simple past tense of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the present participle of the main verb. “You were doing well,’ ‘he was running when I sent the message’ and ‘they were working that afternoon’ are good examples. The word ‘not’ should be inserted between the auxiliary verb and the present participle for negative statements, as in ‘he was not running when I sent the message’ and ‘they were not working that afternoon.’ In a question, the auxiliary verb should appear before the subject, as it does in ‘were you working that afternoon?’ and ‘was she singing in the choir?’ The past continuous is used to express what was in the process of happening or being done at some particular time in the past. It can be used in combination with the simple past, in which case the past continuous expresses a long or ongoing action in the past, whereas the simple past expresses a short action that happened while the longer action was occurring. ‘He was running when I sent the message’ demonstrates this, as does ‘were you driving when the accident happened?’

The past perfect tense uses the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ in the simple past along with the past participle of the main verb. Examples include ‘they had worked that afternoon,’ ‘she had sung in the choir before Christmas’ and ‘you had been ill.’ As with the past continuous tense, the word ‘not’ is inserted between the auxiliary verb and the main verb to achieve a negative meaning: ‘they had not worked that afternoon’ and ‘she had not sung in the choir before.’ Questions are formed by exchanging the positions of the subject and the auxiliary verb, as in ‘had you been ill before the blizzard?’ and ‘had they worked that afternoon?’ The past perfect tense is often used to express an action or event in the past that occurred before another action or event in the past: ‘we arrived after the train had left’ and ‘the snow had fallen before the power went out.’

Finally, the past perfect continuous tense uses two auxiliary verbs as well as the main verb: the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ should appear in the simple past, the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ should appear as a past participle and the main verb should appear as a present participle. ‘They had been working that afternoon,’ ‘she had been singing in the choir for months’ and ‘he had been running every day before the accident’ are sound examples. ‘Not’ should be inserted after the first auxiliary verb when the meaning is negative – ‘they had not been working that afternoon’ and ‘he had not been running every day’ – and the subject should exchange places with the first auxiliary verb when an interrogative statement is intended: ‘had they been working that afternoon?’ and ‘had he been running every day before the accident?’ Similar to the past perfect tense, the past perfect continuous describes a longer action in the past that occurs before another action also in the past, a situation expressed in ‘he had been running every day before the accident’ and ‘she had been singing in the choir for months before the new director arrived.’

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