Using the Past Tenses of English Verbs in Theses and Dissertations
Thesis and dissertation students who struggle with writing English prose that effectively presents their research often have difficulties when it comes to conjugating verb tenses. In this post, I therefore provide advice on forming the past tenses of English verbs and provide some examples of correct usage. Please note that the verb forms I am discussing are set in uppercase letters in these examples, but only for clarity – full capitalisation of this kind should not be used in scholarly writing.
The simple past tense is the most commonly used of the English past tenses. ‘I WAS busy,’ ‘you SANG well,’ ‘he RAN daily’ and ‘they SLEPT this afternoon’ all use the simple past, which describes 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, as in ‘you DID SING in the choir.’ ‘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 ‘we DID not SLEEP in the afternoon.’ A question in the simple past often uses ‘did’ as well, but before the subject instead of after it. ‘DID she SING in the choir?’ is therefore 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’ – and the verb simply changes places with the subject in a question: ‘WERE you ill?’
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. ‘She WAS DOING well,’ ‘you WERE SHOPPING when I left’ and ‘they WERE READING at the library’ are good examples. The word ‘not’ should be inserted between the auxiliary verb and the present participle for negative statements, as in ‘we WERE not READING at all.’ In a question, the auxiliary verb should appear before the subject, as it does in ‘WAS she WRITING when you arrived?’ 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. ‘You WERE SHOPPING when I left’ demonstrates this, as does ‘WERE they READING when it 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 VACATED the building that afternoon,’ ‘he HAD RUN through the park before the festival’ and ‘you HAD BEEN ill.’ The word ‘not’ is inserted between the auxiliary verb and the main verb for a negative meaning, as in ‘we HAD not WRITTEN the paper that afternoon.’ Questions are formed by exchanging the positions of the subject and the auxiliary verb: ‘HAD he SUNG for an audience before?’ 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, as is the case in ‘we arrived just after the ship HAD SAILED.’
The past perfect continuous tense is the most complicated of the past tenses. It uses two auxiliary verbs as well as the main verb: the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ appears in the simple past, while the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ appears as a past participle and the main verb appears as a present participle. ‘They HAD BEEN READING that morning,’ ‘he HAD BEEN SINGING in the choir for months’ and ‘we HAD BEEN SHOPPING every day’ are correct examples. ‘Not’ should be inserted after the first auxiliary verb when the meaning is negative – ‘I HAD not BEEN READING that morning’ – and the subject should exchange places with the first auxiliary verb when an interrogative statement is intended: ‘HAD you BEEN SINGING for long?’ Similar to the past perfect tense, the past perfect continuous describes a longer action in the past that occurs before another action that is also in the past, as is the case in ‘they HAD BEEN READING every day before they lost the book.’
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