Describing the past seems to be a simple part of grammar, yet using the past tense is not always that easy! The first problem is that no part of English as has many irregular forms as past tense verbs. Another problem is that we sometimes need to say which event in the past came before another event in the past, and finally sometimes we can use the present tense to describe the past. Do you still think the past is simple?
If you do think the past is simple, you will be happy to know that there is actually a type of grammar called 'the past simple'. This usually takes the form of [time indicator][subject][past tense verb][object].
Yesterday I studied English.
The 'time indicator' usually comes at the start or end of the sentence or main clause. It is not always explicit (actually in the sentence) but in a simple past it is always implied (you know the time in the past even it it is not stated).
I cooked beans for supper
If there is no explicit time indicator, we can assume that the person cooked the beans last night, since that is the usual time that supper is eaten. So the time indicator is 'last night'. Notice we can say this in several different ways 'Last night I cooked beans for supper' or 'I cooked beans for supper last night' or just 'I cooked beans for supper.' (With 'last night' implied. ) Sometimes the time indicator is more general - for example 'Years ago' or 'Once upon a time...' (Which is how fairy-tales begin in English.)
As every student of English knows, regular past tense verbs are formed by adding '-ed' to the infinitive form of the verb.
Cook / cooked
decide / decided
jump / jumped
However though these words are written with the same ending, regular past tense verbs are pronounced in three different ways: cooked is pronounced as cookt while decided sounds like decidid and jumped is pronounced jumpd. These are usually called the 't', 'id' and 'd' endings.
Which ending is used depends on the sound of the final syllable in the infinitive (the 'base' form of the verb). Syllables in English are 'voiced' or 'voiceless'. You can tell which is which by touching your throat as you say a syllable. If you feel a vibration in your throat the syllable is voiced. Otherwise it is voiceless.
A voiced ending of the base form gives a 'd' sound to the past tense ending. A voiceless ending gives the 't' sound. However, if the base form already ends with a 'd' or 't' sound (as in decide) then we use 'id' to prevent a stuttering '-d-d' sound at the end of the verb.
There are almost 500 irregular verbs in English, and the most common dozen English verbs are all irregular, so this means that the past form of the verb is sometimes completely different to the base (infinitive) form. Here are the twelve most common verbs in their infinitive and past forms:
Be / was
have / had
do / did
say / said
get / got
make / made
go / went
know / knew
take / took
see / saw
come / came
think / thought
Look at this sentence :
I had stepped into the shower when the phone rang.
We can see that there are two verbs – the regular stepped and the irregular rang. So two actions happened. I stepped into the shower, and the phone rang. Both things happened in the past, but which happened first? The answer is that one verb is past perfect, and one is simple past. But which is which? Well we know that rang is simple past because of the forms of the verb – ring/rang/rung. We also know that stepped is a past perfect because it has the auxiliary had with it.
If a sentence has a past perfect and a past tense in it, the past perfect is the action that happened first. So if I had just stepped into the shower when the phone rang, then first I got into the shower, and after that the phone rang. If the phone rang and then stopped ringing before I got into the shower, we would have to change the verbs to show that the phone came first and the shower second. So the sentence would look like this:
I stepped into the shower when the phone had rung.
Notice that 'stepped' remains 'stepped' because with regular verbs the past participle and the past form both have an '-ed' ending. But also notice that 'stepped' no longer has the auxiliary 'had' so we know that it is a past and not a past perfect. The past perfect is now 'had rung'. Notice that the irregular verb 'ring/rang/rung' is now in the past perfect form, with a past participle 'rung' and the auxiliary 'had' in front of it. So if the phone 'had rung' when I 'stepped' into the shower, we know that the ringing happened first, and the getting into the shower happened afterwards.
We do not always need to use the past perfect to describe two events in the past. If the order of events is clear we can use two (or more) past tense verbs. Imagine that little Johnny is running down the path when he falls over. We can describe what happened like this:
He fell down and hurt himself.
You fall, you get hurt. That is the usual sequence of events, so we can use two past tense verbs - 'fell' – the irregular past form of 'fall' and 'hurt', the irregular past of 'hurt'. (Hurt is one of these verbs like 'hit/hit/hit' that does not change at all.)
But what if Johnny fell down because he hit his head on a tree branch? Now he hurt himself before he fell down. This is not what we expect, so we use a past participle to make sure that our audience is clear that the hurt happened before the fall. We say:
He had hurt himself before he fell down.
Notice that we often use helper words such as 'before', 'just as' ,'when' and 'after' to make the order in which events happened even clearer. Just as we use these helper words, using the past perfect is another way that we can describe the past more clearly.
Here's an old joke -:
A rabbit hops into a bar and says 'Give me a beer'. The barman pours the beer and says 'We don't often get rabbits coming to drink here.' The rabbit looks at the bill and says 'I'm not surprised, because your beer is so expensive.'
This is a story about the past but it is told in the present tense to make it seem more dramatic. Quite often in spoken English a speaker will use the past tense to emphasize the dramatic part of the story.
I went to meet my friend at six o'clock. I was standing at the bus stop when this car comes around the corner and drives straight into a lamp post.
Even though the car had driven into the lamp post long before the speaker told his story, the dramatic present can be used here to show how extraordinary the event was. It is not compulsory to use the dramatic present when telling a narrative, and you might do it at the wrong part of the story. So until you are familiar with this usage, it may be best to notice when other people use it, but not do so yourself until you are sure that you are using this form of English at the right time.
So are you ready to take a journey into the past? Here are some exercises for you! Click the blue triangle.