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:
NOTE! The past simple is the most common tense after 'When?' in questions.
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!
NOTE! 'WOULD' CAN NOT BE USED FOR PAST STATES!
Eg. I would live in São Paulo. IS WRONG!
The past continuous is used:
a) To describe the situation in which the events of the narrative occurred.
b) to express an activity in progress at a time in the past.
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.
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.
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?.
As with the past continuous, the past perfect continuous can show the following:
Eg. He hadn't heard the telephone ring because he'd been reading.
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
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