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Concourse 2

Talking about past time


English uses a number of strategies to apply aspect to past time.  The form we use depends on the aspect we perceive.


Simple aspect in the past

It rained last night

The simple aspect signals an absolute verb tense which is independent of any other event.  It is the finite form of the verb standing alone to signify two things:

  1. The event is in the past (and we may or may not include a time reference)
  2. The event is finished and may have no current relevance

It is because the form is an absolute tense form, that we use time markers such as yesterday, last month, in 1922, before the war, at six o'clock etc. which all refer to times which are fixed and do not depend for their understanding on other times.
We cannot, for this reason, combine this tense form with markers such as just, already, yet, recently etc. which all imply a time relative to that of speaking.
In BrE, therefore, we do not usually hear:
    Did she just leave?
but that is a common use in AmE.
British English speakers would generally select a present perfect form for this message to embed the act of leaving in the changed present circumstances which the act has altered.

This aspect is also selected when durative verbs are used to express a continuous aspect.  We may get, therefore:
    She lived in London at the time
rather than
    She was living in London at the time
because the continuous sense is included in the meaning of the verb.
We also find this with verbs that imply a temporary state such as in:
    I stayed with friends during the conference
rather than
    I was staying with friends during the conference
which carries the same meaning.


Perfect aspect in the past

It had rained
It had been raining

The present perfect, often taught as a form of past tense is considered in the guide to present forms because, as the name suggests, it is better considered a present tense which highlights the relationship of the present to the past rather than a reference to past time itself.
Here, we are concerned with the past perfect which really is a past tense form.
If we want to refer to a past state of affairs or action in relation to the previous past, this form will do it for us.  Again, the form can be described as relational rather than referring to absolute time.  The traditional way to explain this to learners is to say that the past perfect refers to the past before the past and that will usually do although the sense is actually of a past embedded in the past.
To make this clear, we can embed the past in the present with something like:
    She has been to the bank so she has money with her
in which the going to the bank is embedded in the present effect and the action of going to the bank has altered the present.
    She had been to the bank so she had money with her
performs the same function of embedding a previous action in the then current state of affairs which the previous action has altered in some way.

Here's is how the form is used to convey meaning:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a previous past event continued as a past event It had rained all day.
and then it was still raining
I want to say that a previous finished past event resulted in a change to the past event He had finally arrived.
so then we could get on
I want to say that a previous past event (recent or not) resulted in a past state I had spent all my money.
so then I was broke

We can combine the perfect aspect with a continuous, progressive, iterative, habitual, durative or even prospective aspect and for this purpose, we will choose a different form.  All the following retain the sense of the perfect aspect, i.e., the relation of the past to a previous past, setting a past within the past, but have an additional aspect grafted on to them.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a current past state was a previous past state I had been feeling rough for a while
and I still felt rough
I want to say that a previous ongoing action was still occurring I had been walking quickly for hours
and was still walking quickly
I want to say that a previous past series of events was still a past series of events It had been raining on and off all day.
and was still raining on and off
I want to say that a previous routine continued to be a routine I had been taking the 4 o'clock bus for years
and it was still my habit to do this
I want to say that a past, long-lasting action continued to be a past long-lasting action I had been thinking about it for a while.
and continued to do so
I want to say that a previous past event or state affected a future event or state I had been meaning to talk to you for a while
and would do so very soon
The river had been rising all night
and would soon flood the streets
We had decided that I was going to drive / would drive
a form of future in the past, in fact

Speakers will often choose prepositional phrases (circumstances, if you prefer) to reinforce the meaning of what they say from the point of view of the relationship between past events.  This is often, in the past perfect aspect, a matter of causality.  For example:
    I couldn't get in because I had left my keys at work
The other element to note is the use of would as a true past form of will. in, for example:
    I had left my keys at work so knew I wouldn't be able to get in.

The progressive aspect has another implication: telicity.
In, for example:
    I had read the book
the implication is that the book was finished so the verb is telic (i.e., having a perceived end point), but in:
    I had been reading the book
the implication is that the book was unfinished and the verb is atelic (i.e., having no perceived end point).
Here, too prepositional phrases are often involved in signalling telicity, so, for example:
    I had read the book in an afternoon
is telic, with a prepositional phrase which expresses a time span, but:
    *I had been reading the book in an afternoon
is not possible because the prepositional phrase implies a time span rather than a frame.
We can have:
    I had been reading the book for an afternoon
because for an afternoon refers to a time frame and the verb is atelic, with no end point suggested.

There is a guide on this site dedicated to more on the past perfect simple and progressive.


Progressive aspect in the past

While he was walking in the mountains,
he looked out for bears

The progressive aspect is not the same as the continuous.  We can assert that something was ongoing, i.e., in progress, in two ways:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action was currently in progress She was sitting on the bus, reading War and Peace and loved the story
right then
progressive (all three)
I want to say that an action was in progress but was not currently happening She was reading War and Peace
but was not reading it then

Simple forms, with certain types of verbal processes, especially mental processes such as enjoy, appreciate, love, understand and verbal processes such as say, aver, assert, describe, are often progressive in aspect but the tense choice is simple.  This is the effect of stative and dynamic use and is not parallelled in many languages.

Again, as we saw above, the progressive aspect implies an atelic use of the verb because it signals incompletion.


Continuous aspect in the past

I didn't understand it
I was not following the argument

As with the progressive aspect, the continuous is expressed through both the simple and complex tense forms.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a state existed I felt terrible
right then
I was feeling better
right then
I want to say that a state of mind existed I thought that it was astonishing
but this cannot be a permanent condition
I was looking forward to meeting him
but this cannot be a permanent condition

Here, too, the distinction between stative and dynamic verb use is apparent but in many circumstances, they are interchangeable with little or no change in meaning.  It is the verb's meaning that determines the form, not vice versa.  Compare:
    I was feeling better
    I felt the softness of the fur


Durative aspect in the past

I was smoking too much

English happens to distinguish between the habitual (which is not solely a past aspect) and the durative.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action was a past long-lasting event which stopped I was staying at the Astor
right then and for some time into the past and future
He would often talk for hours
but no longer does
I want to say that a state existed but stopped There used to be a castle here
but nothing remains
I used to have a house in London
but don't now

The first of these could be described as progressive but the speaker might not have been in the hotel at the time concerned (so it wasn't an action in progress).  It is better described as a continuous aspect.
It is often stated in grammars for students that would can express the durative but only for actions.  We cannot have, e.g.,
    *I would have a house in London.
instead of
    I used to have a house in London.
That's reasonable classroom rule but the verb can be used for some states with copular verbs which convey the relationship between subject and complement like be, appear, seem, remain etc. in, e.g.
    She would sometimes be a difficult person to talk to
    He would often appear uninterested
    I would remain in the house
Frequently, we insert time adverbials in these formulations but they usually apply only to indefinite frequency.

The distinction lies in the temporary, iterated or permanent nature of the event.

temporary states
can be referred to either with would or used to as in, for example:
    She used to be irritable if we asked too many questions
    She would appear impatient when the children were slow in learning
    They would be happy to deliver the post daily
repeated states
can also be referred to with the same two forms as in, for example:
    She would often be a bit difficult to talk to
    She used often to be found sitting in the garden in the summer
permanent states
can only be referred to with used to as in, for example:
    She used to be so slim and attractive
but not
    *She would be so slim and attractive
    We used to live in London
but not
    *We would live in London
unless the living is clearly made temporary as in
    When we visited Europe we would live / stay in London

The issue, of course, is that the terms temporary and permanent may be variously interpreted.  So for example, many will consider that:
    She would always be the first person the children ran to in trouble
    She would invariably be attractive and well dressed
refer to permanent conditions because of the adverbs (always and invariably).  If they do, the rule is broken but the usual understanding in these cases is that both adverbs refer to temporary, if quite long lasting, conditions.
Another way of understanding this is to look at the kind of adjective which is used to describe the subject.  If the adjective describes an inherent quality of the subject, would is disallowed so we cannot have:
    She would be fat
However, if the state is either non-inherent or under the control of the subject we do allow the use of would as in:
    She would be impatient


Iterative aspect in the past

Who's banging the drum?

It is worth noting the distinction here with verb meaning:
    Who was banging the drum?
is iterative (i.e., repeated) because the verb implies a short, sharp action and can be described as a punctual verb but
    Who was playing the bagpipes?
is durative because the verb implies a long action.
Verbs such as
    play, read, rain, , walk, wear, work etc.
all contain within their meaning an idea that the action they describe may be long lasting.
Other verbs, such as:
    arrive, bang, explode, hit, knock, stop, tap etc.
do not usually allow the sense of a long-lasting event so using these in the progressive form implies a repeated (i.e., iterative aspect) not a durative (i.e., progressive aspect).
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action may not have been happening exactly at the moment but was happening then to all intents and purposes Someone was knocking on the door
right then but the knocks may have been quite infrequent
I want to say that an action was repeated but may not have been happening right then People were forgetting to return their books
over a period of time, repeatedly


The interrupted / contiguous past

They were falling when he put his hand in

There are few learners of English above A1 level who have not encountered a sentence like:
    She was having a shower when the doorbell rang
and the usual teacher explanation is something like:

Well, having a shower is the longer of the two actions and the doorbell rang is the short action.  It's called the interrupted past.

By the same token, a sentence such as:
    The children were playing in the park while the parents were gossiping
is often explained as:

Well, here we have two long actions connected by either when or while.  Both actions are long and happening at the same time.

The explanations account for the example sentences, for which they were designed, of course, but both are careless and misleading because neither can explain:
    John read a book when I was gardening
    Mary gardened while John read a book
    The children played while the parents gossiped

The key is to get right away from talking about longer and shorter actions and consider instead

  1. how the speaker perceives the nature of the events and here, too, the concepts of telic and atelic clauses is useful
  2. the meanings of the verbs which are used.

To explain:

ruined past habit

Habitual aspect in the past

People used to work here

The distinction here is with verb meaning:
When we are talking about past states rather than actions, the durative is the aspect to consider (see above).
The habitual refers to actions.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action was routine but has ceased I used to run for the bus
but I no longer do
I would always forget the time

See the comment under durative aspect above on the use of would + bare infinitive for states and actions.  It is not the case that would can never be used to refer to states.


Prospective aspect in the past

I was going to take a holiday

This is commonly referred to as the future in the past and almost always refers to a frustrated, prevented or avoided event.
In the past, only the going to form is possible for frustrated events.  We cannot have, e.g.,
    *I was having a holiday but lost all my money.
There is an exception to this with the verb go exemplified by:
    I was going to America but couldn't get a flight.
Here, the was going formulation is preferred because it avoids the somewhat clumsy was going to go.
The same phenomenon occurs with the verb come because of the perceived clumsiness of going to come so:
    I was coming to see you but suddenly felt quite ill
is preferred over:
    I was going to come to see you but suddenly felt quite ill.

For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action lay in the future but was prevented The tree was going to fall on his house so he had it removed
current state had a future consequence
all prospective
I want to say that a decision taken became unnecessary I was going to ring but he came by
the decision is now redundant
I want to say that a plan was thwarted I was going to take a holiday but there was too much work to do
a 'frustrated' future
I want to say that a future event was avoided It was going to hit me so I ducked
threat avoided

The going to and the -ing forms are traditionally cited as distinct future forms which have different uses (the first for plans, the second for arrangements).  In our analysis they appear in the consideration of present time and there is some doubt that the forms can be distinguished so easily.
The other common formulation to speak of frustrated futures in the past is the supposed to construction as in, e.g.:
    We were supposed to meet at one, but John was delayed.

Take a short test to see if you can match past aspect to meaning.

the tenses index

Lewis, M, 1968, The English Verb: An exploration of Structure and Meaning, Hove: Language Teaching Publications