As the many uses of the different aspects of English can make choosing between the different tenses confusing, it may help to look at specific narrative texts or sections of English dialogue and analyse why the writer or speaker chooses different tenses. To help demonstrate the different uses of the past tense, the following short paragraph has numbered sentences, and a full explanation of why each clause is in that tense:
Past Tenses in Narrative Use – The Knock
He was standing at the door, trying to decide if he should knock. (1) It was cold and dark, and very later. (2) The lights were all off. (3) He had noticed that from the road; (4) everyone inside had gone to bed. (5) They were asleep, and had probably been sleeping for hours. (6) But he needed to get his book back. (7) He had an exam the next day, and he needed to study. (8) It was a mistake to leave the book in their house, and he wished he could change what had happened. (9) Last time this happened, they had been angry at him for weeks. (10) They had been sleeping when he knocked then, too, and they shouted at him all night. (11) He had cried after that. (12) He did not want that to happen again.
He chose not to knock. (13)
He walked quietly away. (14) As he was leaving, someone shouted from the window. It was Paula! (15) She was waving down at him. (16)
“Richard!” she called out. “You left your book behind!” (17)
He smiled, everything was going to be alright. (18)
Paula threw the book, and it hit him square on the nose. (19) As he stumbled away, in pain, she laughed hysterically. (20)
Different Past Tense Uses Explained
- The narrative opens in past continuous. He was standing because this action started before the narrative began. He was trying to decide because this was an ongoing process at this time in the past.
- Cold, dark and very late are all states – talking about the condition of the night, the past simple is appropriate.
- As above, past simple tells us the state of the lights at that time.
- He noticed that (the lights were off) before he reached the house; before this past time in the narrative (when he was on the road). To show a past event that happened before this main narrative, past perfect, had noticed, is necessary.
- As above, everyone went to bed before the narrative began, so past perfect is best.
- They were asleep at the time of the narrative, so past simple shows that state – but past continuous tells us how long for – from a time before the narrative started up to the time of the narrative (for hours).
- His need for the book was a state in the past at the time of the narrative – so past simple is best.
- The past simple is used for states here, possessing the exam (even though it the next day) and possessing the need to study.
- The mistake happened before the narrative began, but to emphasise the mistake we may just use past simple. There is an element of literary style used here – by using the past simple instead of the technically more accurate past perfect (to show the mistake happened earlier), we help put the reader in the place of the subject, reflecting his thoughts at the time- “It was a mistake!” could almost be quoted as his thought. The past perfect, it had been a mistake, would sound more distant and lack emotion.
- Last time… was an event that happened before this narrative – so the past perfect demonstrates that they were angry at him in a past time before this past time.
- The past perfect continuous shows that the process was occurring, and interrupted, before another past event – when he woke them before this narrative. The past simple can then be used to show sequencing – the past perfect is not necessary in the second clause, as it is already understood this is an earlier past time.
- As with 10, the past event was completed before this past event – so the past perfect is appropriate.
- Jumping back to the past simple, these events happen in the main narrative again. He did not want, a state in the past, and he chose, an action completed at the time we are describing. Note a separate paragraph makes this stand out as a break in the narrative; a change in situation.
- As above, the sequence of activities continues in past simple.
- The sequence continues with another past simple event, but it interrupts him leaving – the past continuous shows he had started the process of leaving when she shouted.
- The past continuous now shows she was in the ongoing process of waving, which started before he noticed (or rather, before our main narrative finds her).
- Again the sequence continues in the past simple.
- Now we are put in his thought process again, looking to the future. The past continuous is used here as future form “going to” would be used in the present, simply in the past. Because our narrative happened before now.
- The narrative continues in the past simple, one complete event after another.
- …and the tale concludes in the same way – the past simple describes his movement, and her action, as complete sequenced events. The past continuous could also be used in either clause here, to emphasise an ongoing process.