Talking in the past
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The English language offers many possibilities to tell stories in the past. When we tell a story we are creating pictures in the listener’s mind and to do this in a good way we have four main tenses to choose from.
As I’ve said many times before, being able to position when things happened / were happening / had already happened allows us to tell very good stories i.e. to create very good pictures in the listener’s mind.
So please embrace this and don’t avoid using them. Remember, practice makes perfect!
Let’s compare two ways of telling the same story:
Let me tell you what happened yesterday. I asked my family not to disturb me and I had a bath, I lay in the bath for 30 minutes and read a book. It was wonderful and I was very relaxed when suddenly a huge spider fell in the bath and gave me a big fright
Let me tell you what happened yesterday. I was having a bath. I’d asked my family not to disturb me. I’d been lying in the bath for 30 minutes, reading a book. It was wonderful and I was very relaxed when suddenly a huge spider fell in the bath and gave me a big fright.
The second version creates those pictures much better than the first version. First I set the scene by using the past continuous (I was having) then I take one step back with the past perfect (I’d asked) because I want to emphasise how I’d planned for this to be a relaxing time, then I use the past perfect continuous (I’d been lying) because I want to emphasise how long I’d been having a bath before something bad happened. So in the second version I can build up suspense. I’m sure you’ll agree that there is no suspense in the first version.
Quick reminder of those 4 tenses
1. Simple Past
We use this for actions which happened at a specific time in the past.
The spider fell into the bath.
2. Past Progressive
We use this to show that someone was in the middle of some action when something else happened.
I was reading my book when the spider fell into the bath.
Or to set the scene for a story.
I was lying in the bath.
Or to show that two things were happening at the same time.
I was lying in the bath and I was reading a book.
3. Past Perfect
We use this to show that something had already happened before another action in the past.
I’d (I had) asked my family not to disturb me.
4. Past Perfect Progressive
We use this to show how long something had been happening before another action took place in the past.
I’d (I had) been lying in the bath for 30 minutes
Once again, try to embrace all the possibilities we have to talk in the past. Go out and tell some great stories!