The article about Expressing past actions in English language has been written by me (Dan Dumitrache) and has been improved by Mr. Kimmo Kosunen.
English grammar is relatively simple (I always compare it with my mother tongue, which is a Latin language). Verb tenses is not everything you have to know about grammar, there are many other things you should know but here we will be focusing on tenses, particularly on those that express past actions.
I have been taught that there are just two tenses in English language. They are Simple Tense and Past Tense. Simple Tense and Past Tense are just the root, from which other tenses derive.
Here you have a complete list of all the tenses used in English language for describing past actions. For expressing future actions there is another post very well and clearly explained. Present tenses will be presented in a future post.
Present Perfect Continuous
Past Perfect Continuous
For a better understanding I will chose a sentence which I will use for each of the tenses above: “I live in Vietnam”.
Form: add –ed at the end of regular verbs (see exceptions/special cases below).
(Special case: -verbs ending in ‘consonant + y’ Y->I)
For irregular verbs, see the table for irregular verbs, and choose verb form in the second column.
Use / (Meaning): Past Simple is used to express a finished action in past but only when the time of the action is specified, that is, when the action happened (yesterday, one week ago, in 2003 etc.). I try to avoid using complex sentences (or phrases containing more than one sentence) just because in this situation, grammar can be very tricky. As an example you can use Past Simple for an action taking place in the middle of another action.
Ex: I lived inVietnamin 2003.
I did not live inVietnamin 2003.
Did I live inVietnamin 2003?
The action happened in the past, it is finished …. Now (in 2011) I live inEurope.
N.B. Past Simple can also be used when no time is specified but the speaker and the person(s) he/she is talking to are both aware of the time of the action.
Speaker A: Hey – a new carpet, nice! Where did you find it?
Speaker B: It was on sale atHarvey’s.
The negative is formed with the auxiliary do. The past form of do is did, and the main verb remains unchanged (in its base form/V1). As did already denotes the past, it is unnecessary to change the main verb into its past form.
Like any other continuous tense, Past Continuous is formed using the auxiliary be (in its past form) and the –ing termination/ending for the verb.
Past continuous expresses past actions taking place at a particular moment in the past.
It is does not say when the action started nor, usually, when it ended. It is also often used to give ‘the background setting to a story.
I use this form when I talk about an action which took place in past and I want to emphasize what I was doing at a particularly moment in past. Usually there are two actions involved.
Ex: I was living in Vietnam when you got married. (That’s why I couldn’t come to the wedding party)
However, it can also express action which was interrupted or even terminated.
Examples for ‘interruption’:
I was driving at 90 miles an hour when I saw the police car in the distance. (90 mph down to the speed limit of 70 and then later back to 90).
I was watching TV when the phone rang (answered the phone and then continued watching TV).
Examples for ‘termination’:
I was driving at 90 miles an hour when I crashed into the police car. (No more driving after that).
I was watching TV, when he shot me. (No more watching TV after that).
Present Perfect Simple
Present Perfect is formed with have/has before the verb and the –ed termination/ending for the verb (or past participle with irregular verbs). For irregular verbs the –ed form is replaced by the past participle form (ex: speak – for present simple, spoke – for past simple, spoken – past participle for present perfect).
Special case: regular verbs ending with consonant + y.
Despite the name (which contains the word “present”) it refers to a past action. It is similar to Past Simple and its use is often misunderstood. The main difference between Past Simple and Present Perfect is the point we want to emphasize.
Ex: I have lived in Vietnam (it doesn’t matter when; important is I have lived there in the past, I liked and I would like to live there again).
In the Past Simple example I lived in Vietnam in 2003 the importance is “2003”. The listener is interested in where I was in 2003.
Present Perfect Simple – The speaker does not mention any specific time, the reference being some time between past and now. (Ex: I have visited Japan many times)
Present Perfect Continuous
I always use Present Perfect Continuous to express an action that started in past and is still going on. Because is a continuous tense that expresses the duration of an action we use have/has + been + V-ing.
Many times my students ask me “How long have you been living in Vietnam?” That means I came here some time ago and I am still here now. The answer for this question is “I have been living in Vietnam since 2003”. Another good answer would be “I have been living here for 8 years”.
In this case the emphasis is on duration, the listener wants to know HOW LONG. The commonly words sign for Present Perfect Continuous are: how long, since, for 3 years, all day, all week etc.
Past Perfect Simple
Past Perfect is used to express a past action that happened before another past action.
Past Perfect is formed in a similar way to Present Perfect but have has to be in its past form had – so we have the structure had + V3.
Ex: I had lived in Vietnam before I moved in Singapore.
I had lived in Vietnam for 10 years before I moved in Singapore.
You can use Past Perfect to emphasize the duration of a past action (I had lived in Vietnam for 10 years …) that happened before another past action (… before I moved to Singapore).
I would like to give you one more example for a better understanding
Ex 1: I had never seen (ACT.1) a palm tree before I moved (ACT.2) in Vietnam.
Ex 2: Before I moved (ACT.1) to Vietnam, I had never seen (ACT.2) a palm tree. [stronger emphasis]
The main idea is Past Perfect is used to express a past action that happened before another past action.
Note: Although Past Perfect is used to show chronological order between actions in the past, with words such as “before”, Past Perfect is often not used because these words make the chronological order clear. Thus,
I lived in Vietnam before I moved in Singapore.
I lived in Vietnam for 10 years before I moved in Singapore.
I never saw a palm tree before I moved to Vietnam.
Past Perfect Continuous
As a continuous tense, Past Perfect Continuous emphasizes the duration of a past action before another past action. We form it like this: had + been + V + ing. It is important to remember that this tense ALWAYS needs a time phrase expressing HOW LONG before one action happened in relation to the other action.
Ex: I had been living in Vietnam for over a year before my friend moved here.
Applying grammar theory in speaking is not an easy task. It requires self-devotion and a lot of speaking practice. Don’t try to apply all at the same time; chose a tense and focus on it a month (ex: past simple vs. present perfect – it took me a month), try to compare it with other tenses and you will end up speaking good English. Pay much attention to pronunciation (in some cases -ed sounds like /d/ but in some cases -ed sounds like /t/)
Those who are better at grammar and wish to make any kind of suggestions for improving the quality of this post are welcome. If any part of this post is hard to be understood then feel free to leave a comment with a better version of the paragraph you consider not well explained. Your help is highly appreciated.