Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Grammar Tip # 2: Narrative Tenses

The Narrative Tenses

Narrative tenses are the grammatical structures that you use when telling a story, or talking about situations and activities which happened at a defined past time.
When narrating past events, DO NOT mix past and present tenses (avoid using the present perfect and present simple), as these will confuse the reader/listener about when things really happened.
Here are the most common narrative tenses and how they are used:

  • 1. The Simple Past Tense.

  • The past simple is used:

  • a) to express a completed action at a definite time in the past. The separate events which occur in sequence in a narrative are expressed using this tense.

  • Eg.
    I woke up (1) at half past seven yesterday, I had a shower (2) and ate some breakfast (3). I left for work (4) at quarter past eight.
    NOTE! The past simple is the most common tense after 'When?' in questions.

  • b) to express past habits. I went to school in São Paulo until my family moved to Rio.

  • NOTE! Used to + verb is often used to express past habits and states that happened in the past, but do not happen now. Used to can not be used for actions which only occured once.
    Eg. I used to work for Petrobrás. (I don't work for them now)
    I didn't use to like living in Ipanema. (I do like it now)
    Where did you use to go for lunch? (You don't go there now)
    Would (+ adverb of frequency) + verb can be used to express past habits which do not happen now.
    Eg. My grandfather would always read the newspaper at breakfast time. (He doesn't do it now)
    Using 'would' instead of 'used to' often gives an idea of nostalgia. However, if the adverb of frequency is stressed, it can give the idea that the habit was annoying.
    Eg. My dog would never do what I wanted it to do!

    Eg. I would live in São Paulo. IS WRONG!

  • 2. The Past Continuous Tense. As with all continuous tenses, the past continuous gives the idea of activity and duration.
    The past continuous is used:
    a) To describe the situation in which the events of the narrative occurred.
    When I saw her (1), she was wearing (2) a blue dress and was driving (2) a Mercedes.
    b) to express an activity in progress at a time in the past.
    What were you doing (1) when I phoned you?
    NOTE! The past continuous is the most common tense after 'while' in questions and statements.
    The past continuous also expresses the idea of:
    An interrupted activity
    Eg. She was cooking dinner when the door bell rang. (She cooked dinner = she finished it)
    An unfinished activity
    Eg. I was reading a book yesterday. (I read a book... = I finished reading the whole book)
    A repeated action
    Eg. They were shooting at the enemy. (They shot.... = They fired the gun one time only)
    A temporary situation
    Eg. He was standing on the corner waiting for a bus. (It stood on the corner. = Permanent situation)
    NOTE! The past continuous can also be used as 'future in the past'. This will be explained later.
    3. The Past Perfect Simple Tense.
    The past perfect simple is used
    a) to show that an action or situation happened BEFORE the events in the narrative described in the simple past.

  • I woke up (1) at half past seven yesterday. I had slept very badly (2) because there had been a power cut (3) during the night.
    NOTE! It is bad style to use too many verbs in the past perfect . As soon as it is clear that the events happened before the time that the narrative is set, use the simple past.
    Eg. I woke up at half past seven yesterday. I had slept very badly because there'd been a power cut during the night. When the electricity went off, I was watching the Brazilian national team playing football against the USA.
    NOTE! If the subject of two verbs is the same, you don't have to repeat the 'had' auxiliary.
    Eg. When I arrived, he'd finished his dinner and left the room.

  • b) Making a narrative more interesting to read.

  • It is generally seen as bad literary style to have too many verbs in the same tense. In English it is always best to avoid repetition where possible.
    Look again at the example used to illustrate the simple past tense.
    This same sentence could be improved for dramatic effect by using the past perfect simple.
    Eg. I woke up (1) at half past seven yesterday. When I had had a shower (2) and eaten some breakfast (3), I left for work (4).
    CONJUNCTIONS (After, As soon as, Before, By the time, Once, till, When, Unless, Until)
    With these conjunctions of time, the past perfect shows that the first action MUST BE COMPLETED before the second action begins, otherwise the past simple is used.
    Eg. After....she finished, they left / she had finished, they left. (She had to finish first)
    As soon as...we arrived she said "hello". / I had done it, I sent it to her. (I had to do it first)
    She wouldn't sign the contract before.... seeing it / she had seen it. (She had to see it first)
    They wouldn't go unless....she came with them / they had seen it was safe.
    (It was important to finish checking that it was safe before going)
    For more information on conjunctions of time, see the worksheet called: When do I use the perfect tenses?.

  • 4. The Past Perfect Continuous Tense. a) The past perfect continuous is used for longer activities that were happening continuously up until a specified time in the past.

  • He looked very tired (1), he had been working very hard (2) over the past three weeks.
    As with the past continuous, the past perfect continuous can show the following:
    Unfinished activity
    Eg. He hadn't heard the telephone ring because he'd been reading.
    Repeated activity
    Eg. I was tired. I'd been cutting wood all day.
    With the past perfect simple, the focus is on the completed activity.
    Eg. He'd read three reports that morning.
    He'd cut a huge pile of wood.
    Back to narrative tenses ex. 1

  • 5. The Future in the Past.

  • The future in the past is used to look into the future from a point of time in the past. However, this "future" event still occurred at a time before the present time.
    I woke up (1) at half past seven yesterday. I was meeting my boss (2) at ten o'clock that morning, so I wouldn't be able to have lunch (3) with Susan. I wasn't going to get home (4) again until late that night.
    Depending on the situation, the following tenses are used in the future in the past:
    The past simple (a timetabled event) The past continuous (an arrangement)
    Would (a prediction) Was going to (a plan)
    Would be doing (an action at a specific time) Would have done (action completed before
    a specified time)

    Back to narrative tenses ex. 2
    Back to Grammar worksheets

    Source:  http://www.vivquarry.com/


    1. This is very useful. I often make mistakes mixing present and past tenses when I write a story. Ihope I will remember this :)

    2. We could write a story, you could post the first paragraph, and we should go on. It would be like the game you taught us in class, and we could practise past tenses. I think it would be funny.:)

    3. Elena and Mª Ángeles, thank you. I'm glad you find it useful :-)

    4. You are right. I think this comes in very handy, we do need some tips in order to establish a good sequence of time by choosing the correct tenses...