The Simple Past Tense
Formation. The past (technically the simple past) is just as easy to form as the present: It’s the second principal part of the verb uniformly across all of the persons and numbers for both regular and irregular verbs, with only one exception—to be again. There are two past tense forms of to be—was and were. All other verbs, regular and irregular alike, take the form of the second principal part: I baked, you helped, she ate, we cleaned, you mopped, and they rested.
Usage. The simple past is used to describe actions that took place in the past and are no longer going on. They are actions that happened and are complete. I drank the coffee means that the act of drinking occurred at some point in the past and is not going on now. Often an adverb of time accompanies the past form of the verb to pinpoint when the action occurred: I drank the coffee ten minutes ago, I baked a loaf of bread yesterday, I went to the dentist last week.
Other Past Tenses
There are three other past tenses used to indicate variants on past action. These are the past progressive (akin to, but by no means the same as, the imperfect in other languages), the present perfect (again, similar but not identical to the perfect in other languages), and the past perfect (similar to the pluperfect in other languages). Let’s discuss these briefly.
The Past Progressive Tense
Formation. This is the past-tense version of the present progressive, formed similarly. That is, the
–ing form of the verb (which is also the present participle) is used with the simple past tense of the verb to be to form the past progressive. The past progressive of I walked is I was walking; of you told, it’s you were telling; of he lied, it’s he was lying.
Usage. The past progressive is used to describe ongoing, incomplete, or continuous actions that took place in the past. It is usually used with some indicator of another action happening at the time of the continuous past action. For example, we would rarely say I was walking the dog plain and simple; almost always, we would elaborate this statement with the mention of a simple past event, or we would produce this sentence in response to a question such as What were you doing last night when I called you? In response we might say I was walking the dog when I heard the alarm go off in the supermarket, or When you called me, I was walking the dog.
The past progressive has another use: It is used for the narration of past events that have a continuing or ongoing aspect. In such a narration, there is always a sense of an impending when just offstage, a when that interrupts the flow and thereby brings the narration to a climax. The kind of mystery novels that I enjoy may have long past progressive passages of this kind, as in:
Bolt was walking idly along the waterfront, minding his own business. He wasn’t expecting any trouble, nor was he looking for any revelations. He was simply doing his job. He was whistling a tune that came from nowhere, a habit he had developed after years on the job. He was just thinking that he was becoming more a creature of habit than was good for him, when the next seconds proved him right. He was turning mindlessly into the section of the wharf where the large foreign freighters docked, when a blow from the right caught him in the ribcage and doubled him over….
Past progressive vs. imperfect. Okay, so the past progressive is used to describe ongoing action in the past and in some kinds of narration. When is it not used? The answer to this question introduces some key differences between our past progressive and other languages’ imperfect tenses.
Differences. The main way in which English does not use the past progressive marks the key difference between that tense and the imperfect tense of many other languages. In English, the past progressive is not used to describe repetitive, habitual actions in the past—things we used to do or were accustomed to doing.
For example, an English speaker would have to use the “used to + base form” construction instead of the past progressive tense to express what the French can properly use their imperfect (l’imparfait) to say.
To be more concrete: When the French say Je visitais souvent le Louvre, this sentence is not translated into English as I was often visiting the Louvre, but as I often used to visit the Louvre. In fact, this peculiarity of usage provides a nearly foolproof way of distinguishing many nonnative English speakers from natives (that is, it’s a classic shibboleth). When you hear someone say, even in perfectly pronounced English, When I was living in New York, I was buying the New York Times every day, you know you are listening to a nonnative English speaker.
There are other ways an English speaker can communicate habitual past actions in addition to used to; for example, we can say “When I lived in New York, I had the habit of buying the Times every day.” Or, “… I was accustomed to buying the Times every day” or even “… I would buy the Times every day.” But we don’t say “… I was buying the Times every day.”
Of course, the French have their revenge, because for English speakers the reverse predicament materializes: The French imparfait seems to have been created primarily to drive English speakers mad; anyone learning French knows that it is nearly impossible for nonnative French speakers to grasp the subtlety of the distinction in usage between the imparfait and the passé composé.
Similarities. On the other hand, there are similarities between the two tenses. The imperfect tense of other languages shares many uses with the past progressive in English. It can be used like the past progressive to describe incomplete, ongoing actions in the past—a usage, as we noted above, that usually has a stated or implied “punctuator,” such as a when, to interrupt the flow of time.
For example, consider the two English sentences about dog walking cited above.
I was walking the dog when I heard the alarm go off in the supermarket.
When you called me, I was walking the dog.
These sentences describe an ongoing action in the past (the dog walking) that was proceeding when something else happened (the alarm and the phone call). These sentences can be translated nearly literally into French as one might expect, using the appropriate conversions: past progressive = imparfait and simple past = passé composé:
Je sortais le chien quand j’ai entendu sonner l’alarme du supermarché.
Quand tu m’as téléphoné, je sortais le chien.
The Present Perfect Tense
The present perfect is, despite its name, a kind of past tense. Let’s talk about its formation first, and then its usage.
Formation. To form the present perfect, you need the appropriate form of the present tense of to have plus the past participle (i.e., the third principal part) of the verb. These are all proper present perfect forms:
To negate these forms, simply change the to have verb either by adding the word not, as in I have not bought, you have not seen, she has not broken, etc., OR by adding the contracted form of not, which is -n’t directly to the end of the to have verb, as in I haven’t bought, you haven’t seen, she hasn’t broken, etc.
For the interrogative form, invert the subject pronoun or noun and the to have verb form, as in Has Jamie bought the napkins?, Have you seen my glasses?, and Have we met? The interrogative form of the negative is formed pretty much the same way: invert the (pro)noun + to have form, and then continue with the negative and the main verb form. For example, Have the Claytons not responded?, Have I not read this book before?
Note, however, that the latter two sentences sound a bit odd to the native speaker—stilted and old-fashioned. What has happened is that we have used an uncontracted form of have not, instead of the more normal-sounding haven’t. Inverting the to have form virtually requires us to invert the attached –n’t as well. The more comfortable sentences are Haven’t the Claytons responded? and Haven’t I read this book before?
Usage. The present perfect describes actions that started in the past and either (1) continue into the present; (2) ended in the past but at some indefinite time and after some indefinite period.
An example of the first use is Jared has lived in Poughkeepsie for many years. The implication is that he started living there many years ago and still lives there. Similar sentences are I have always been a Democrat, I have loved you since the day I met you, and It has been a very difficult year.
An example of the second use is I’ve seen that movie already. It is clear that the speaker saw the movie at some indefinite point in the past and is not still seeing it. A more subtle inference is that the speaker doesn’t want to see it again. Note that this inference is not implicit in all similar uses of the present perfect. The sentence I visited the Metropolitan Museum three times this summer does not imply that the speaker doesn’t want to visit the museum again.
The distinction between the present perfect and the simple past is not always clear; there is considerable room for ambiguity, which can be used in aid of subtlety. Consider these sentence pairs:
I shot the sheriff.
I’ve shot the sheriff.
There is clearly a difference, but it takes some thinking to express just what the difference is. The first sentence is a simple report of a fact, or two facts: The sheriff is shot and I am the one who shot him or her. The second sentence is less definite. While the same two facts are conveyed, there is some additional extra-verbal information in this sentence that has to be pried out of it. The statement is not a simple, accomplished fact: the act of shooting lives on in the mind of the speaker. Perhaps there is a sense of innocent horror in it, as in Good God, I’ve shot the sheriff (and I didn’t mean to). Perhaps there can also be a sense of recency and hope in it, as in I’ve (just) shot the sheriff (and maybe he can be saved).
The present perfect is a subtle—even sly—tense, suitable for conveying a great deal of information which the listener or reader is left to interpret more or less by intuition. Consider some more sentence pairs and have fun with intuiting inferences that may be drawn from each of them without much stretching.
I’ve always loved you.
I always loved you. [Is there a hidden message here?]
I can see I hurt you.
I can see I’ve hurt you. [Which is probably the worse injury? Are the injuries of similar types?]
We discussed this in the past.
We’ve discussed this in the past. [In which instance is there likely to be another discussion now?]
I slept with your husband.
I’ve slept with your husband. [You could write a short story about this pair.]
I’ve got a cold.
I got a cold.
I hated you for that!
I’ve hated you for that!
You paid no attention to me.
You’ve paid no attention to me.
See what fun we can have by reading between the lines in the use of tenses?
The Past Perfect Tense
Formation. The past perfect is formed by combining the past participle (i.e., the third principal part) of the verb with the past tense of to have. Examples are I had been in the train station an hour and a half when the train finally arrived and Jeremy had not read the book before the class convened.
Usage. The past perfect always has two past time periods in mind: Event A happened and Event B happened. The past perfect is attached to the past event that happened first—before the other past event, which is described in the simple past. The form is I had Event A’d when Event B happened.
For example, I had just gone to bed when the phone rang. Both actions—going to bed and ringing—happened in the past, relative to the “now” when the speaker is speaking, but one of them, marked with the verb had, happened before the other, which is in the simple past.
Other examples are:
The train had already left the station when Marceline pulled into the parking lot.
We had finished dinner when you arrived.
The test had begun when you showed up.
Past-contrary-to-fact conditions. The other common use of the past perfect is in what are called (or at least used to be called by my Greek teacher) past-contrary-to-fact conditions; the more up-to-date term is counterfactuals. These are conditional sentences (i.e., sentences commonly marked by the conjunction if) that describe events that the speaker claims would have happened in the past if something else had happened (or not happened) first. Here are examples:
If you had spoken up at the altar, I would never have gone through with the wedding.
If Henry had not killed Anne, she might eventually have given him a son.
I would have been an honest man if I had never met Rogers.
I would be an honest man today if I had never met Rogers.
Note that in such sentences, there are typically two clauses: the conditional clause (the protasis or if clause), which uses the past perfect form of the verb, and the consequent clause (the apodosis or then clause), which uses the would form (technically the conditional tense, either past or present) of the verb. Sometimes the protasis comes first, and sometimes the apodosis does. (Okay, okay, these are weird, unnecessary words. But I just love this stuff.)
In either case, the action described in the protasis did not happen; and because it did not, the action described in the apodosis also did not happen. All this not happening gives this conditional structure its appellation of contrary-to-fact or counterfactual.
Two things to note: One, the word if is not needed; we can simply use the pluperfect, but inverted:
Had you spoken up at the altar, I would never have gone through with the wedding.
Had Henry not killed Anne, she might eventually have given him a son.
I would have been (would be) an honest man had I never met Rogers.
Two, the had–would structure is falling into disuse, apparently because many people find it cumbersome and difficult. I often hear people using would have in both the protasis and apodosis, as in If you would have told me about his gambling habit, I never would have trusted McCaffrey. I find I am having to get used to this structure because I hear it more and more often and the past perfect less and less.
[Continued in Part Four–Tense: Section Three–The Future Tenses]