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Past Contrast

 

The meaning of highlighted words is explained at the end of the passage.

English has nine tenses for talking about past time. The objective of this article is to clarify the differences between these tenses by comparing them. It is not suitable as an introduction to the past but rather should be used as a general perspective when all (or most) of the tenses have been learned independently.

1

PAST SIMPLE  vs.  PRESENT PERFECT SIMPLE

The PAST SIMPLE (DID, PAINTED) refers to past time and there is no association with the present. Usually "when" is important in a past simple sentence. Either we say explicitly "when" or we assume (presume, suppose) that the other person knows "when".

TENSE MARKERS (words that suggest the use of a specific verbal tense):
yesterday, ago, last (week, month, year, etc.), then, when, once, 
in (1970, 2000), at (12 o'clock, tea-time), on (Monday), etc.

The PRESENT PERFECT SIMPLE (HAVE DONE, HAS PAINTED) always tells you something about "now". If we explicitly say when something happened, we cannot use the Present Perfect.

A good way to test if the Present Perfect Simple should be used is to ask yourself if you can make a corresponding sentence in the Present Simple.

It is useful to consider the Present Perfect as a "bridge" tense which connects past events or actions with present result, or suggests that something has happened until the present (and may continue or not).

TENSE MARKERS:
for, already, yet, still, always, never, ever, lately, recently,
today, this week, this month, this year, so far, up to now.

The two tenses can often be used to describe the same event, but the focus is different:

e.g.  I have lost my glasses ( = I don't have my glasses now, and I can't read this to you).
e.g.  I lost my glasses last night ( = it was last night when I lost my glasses, so I didn't leave them on the bus. Perhaps I found them just this morning).

On TV and papers news is usually presented in the Present Perfect. After that, the details (when? where? why? how?) are given in the past simple:

e.g.  The ex-Prime Minister has been assassinated. He was killed in front of his home by a gunman at 10:00 last night.

Just to confuse things, the British and Americans use these tenses differently when referring to something that happened very recently. In British English you say have just done while in American English you say just did:

e.g.  Markus has just
left. ( = UK English);   Brad just left. ( = US English)

 

2

PRESENT PERFECT SIMPLE  vs. PRESENT PERFECT CONTINUOUS

The Present Perfect Simple focuses on the (present) result of an action.

TENSE MARKERS:
How much...?   How many...?
Numbers (100 miles, 18 cigarettes, two coffees), always, ever.

The PRESENT PERFECT CONTINUOUS (HAVE BEEN DOING, HAS BEEN EATING) focuses on the activity, the result of the activity. Whether it is completed or not is not important. This verbal tense often refers to activities which have recently finished.

TENSE MARKER:
How long...?

e.g.  I have been driving all day. I have driven 300 km.
e.g. a)  I have been cleaning the house (that's why my clothes are dirty); b)  I have cleaned the house ( = the house is clean now).

3

PAST SIMPLE  vs.  PAST CONTINUOUS

The PAST CONTINUOUS (WAS DOING, WERE EATING) is a dependent tense. It usually refers to an action in progress at a particular moment, or when something else occurred (in the Past Simple):

e.g.  I cut my finger while I was preparing the pizza ( = I was preparing the pizza before I cut my finger, at the time I cut my finger and, probably, after cutting my finger).

However, it is possible to use two sentences in the Past Continuous together if two events which happened over a period of time coincided (simultaneous actions):

e.g.  While I was cleaning the house, he was enjoying herself in the pub !! 

The Past Continuous is used for temporary situations. If a situation is more permanent, we use either the Past Simple or Used to (please, refer to rule # 7 underneath).

The Past Continuous is not used for talking about habits. For habits we use either the Past Simple or Used to

4

PAST SIMPLE  vs.  PAST PERFECT SIMPLE

The PAST PERFECT SIMPLE (HAD DONE, HAD EATEN) tells you that one thing in the past happened before another thing in the past. If we list events in chronological order we usually use the Past Simple.

The Past Perfect Simple is used to clarify the sequence of events when we break that chronological order.

TENSE MARKERS:
just, already, before, when, how many times...?

e.g. When Paul arrived at the theatre his girlfriend had already left.

5

PAST PERFECT SIMPLE  vs.  PAST PERFECT CONTINUOUS

The PAST PERFECT CONTINUOUS (HAD BEEN DOING, HAD BEEN EATING) has the same relationship to the Past Perfect Simple as the Present Perfect Continuous does to the Present Perfect Simple.

The Past Perfect Continuous is used to talk about an activity which took place a certain period of time before something else happened.

The important thing is not the result but the activity. We are interested in the continuity or duration of the activity or situation.

TENSE MARKER:
How long...?

e.g. Tony looked tired. He had been working all day. He had written three chapters of his new novel.

6

PAST SIMPLE  vs.  PAST OF INTENTION

The PAST OF INTENTION (WAS GOING TO DO, WERE GOING TO EAT) expresses what someone planned or intended to do in the past. Usually this plan was never fulfilled (completed, performed) becaue something convinced the person to do something else.

e.g. I was going to fly to New York by Concord but after the accident I decided to go in a regular flight.

7

PAST SIMPLE  vs.  USED TO

USED TO (negative, DIDN'T USE) emphasizes that something happened regularly over a period of time, but does not happen now.

e.g. I used to smoke when I was younger (but I don't any more).

USED TO cannot be used to say how often something happened:

e.g. We went to Africa three times in my childhood (not "we used to go to Africa three times..."),

USED TO canot be used with specific time periods (e.g. "for five years"):

e.g. England controlled parts of France for over four centuries (not "used to control...").

8

USED TO  vs.  WOULD

WOULD can be used to talk about past routine. With WOULD we have to mention a specific time (if not, it sounds like a conditional).

USED TO is used to talk about past routine (discontinued habits and past states), and is much more common in modern English. Always remember this: IF YOU ARE IN DOUBT USE "USED TO".

e.g.  When I was 25, I used to go on jogging every morning.
e.g.  I would go jogging every morning when I lived in New York.
e.g.  I used to have a
small hairy dog. (not WOULD)
e.g.  There used to be a post office on the corner of that street. (not WOULD)
e.g.  He used to be a handsome man but now he is fat and bald !!
e.g. 
Slovenia used to be part of Yugoslavia.

 

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