I was recently asked for some basic rules regarding how we can combine two different tenses in one sentence – for example which tenses can or cannot be used together. I’m not aware a comparison of the tenses being readily available in this way; my instinct is that with some ingenuity almost any two tenses could be used within one sentence, depending on contractions, structuring and context. But I thought it would be useful to consider how each tense might be used to combine with the other 12 basic aspects; past, present and future in the simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous, starting today with the past simple and past continuous.
To demonstrate the differences I’ve chosen to start with the clause “I walked home.” It is just an action that popped to mind, which provides a simple context without too much detail. With different verbs other ideas would certainly be possible (for example when using abstract verbs). I chose to continue expanding on the single example, rather than mix it up, otherwise this could become very expansive very quickly. (Perhaps it’s a starting point for a wealth of additional material to create a 2nd edition of The English Tenses!)
The past simple can be quite easily connected to all the other tenses, though a little more context may be needed to make some of the details clear. The most tricky situations here are the future perfect and future perfect continuous, which both require additional information to make the future perfect work in the context of a future time.
- I walked home.
- I walked home while it was raining. (+Past Continuous)
- I walked home after my classes had finished. (+Past Perfect)
- I walked home after I had been learning all day. (+Past Perfect Continuous)
- I walked home and I have unpacked my bag. (+Present Perfect)
- I walked home and I have been thinking about it ever since. (+Present Perfect Continuous)
- I walked home and now I am here. (+Present Simple)
- I walked home and now I am watching TV. (+Present Continuous)
- I walked home but I will get the bus next time. (+Future Simple)
- I walked home and I will be staying here all night. (+ Future Simple Continuous)
- I walked home and I will have walked ten miles this week if I do it again tomorrow. (+ Future Perfect)
- I walked home today and I will have been doing so every day for a month by the end of the week. (+Future Perfect Continuous)
The examples for the past continuous are similar to the past simple combinations, with the key difference being that many of these focus more on the process than a complete past action. Sometimes the reason for using the past continuous will require more information (for example some of these sentences might make more sense with an interrupting action), or in some cases we need to connect the past continuous with a duration to make clear we are referring to a process carried out over a period time, as opposed to a completed action.
With the future tenses, these connections are more complicated: it can be connected in an almost unrelated way (the future simple here is like an interjection) or needs some reference to a past time to make a distinction between the past process and now (otherwise we should use the present perfect continuous).
- I was walking home.
- I was walking home when the accident happened. (+Past Simple)
- I was walking home because I had lost my bus card. (+Past Perfect)
- I was walking home because I had been sitting all day. (+Past Perfect Continuous)
- I was walking home every day but I have decided not to in future. (+Present Perfect)
- I was walking home during the summer and I have been waiting to do it again. (+Present Perfect Continuous)
- I was walking in such terrible conditions that I now need new shoes. (+Present Simple)
- I was walking home and now I am watching TV. (+Present Continuous, contrasting processes)
- I was walking home and I will tell you what I saw. (+Future Simple)
- I was walking home every day earlier this week but I will be driving home tomorrow. (+ Future Simple Continuous)
- I was walking home all last week and I will have walked thirty miles this month if I continue tomorrow. (+ Future Perfect)
- I was walking home all last week and by next week I will have been doing so every other week for year. (+Future Perfect Continuous)
I hope this helps demonstrate some of the ways to combine these tenses – if so, I aim to look at the other tenses in the same way in future!