Verbs to express Past Tense

Verbs are crucial in how we express actions or occourances. They are one of the four open classes (meaning that they can change their form and admit new members) and are instrumental in indicating the tense and aspect of a sentence.

There are three tenses in the English language (Past, Present, and Future) and several aspects (past progressive, future perfect, simple present, etc.) that work together to paint a complete picture of the action described.

In this article, I will explore some common tense/aspect combinations and how they can be used to improve your writing experience.

Let’s begin with Past Tense.

Verbs in the past tense are used to define actions that have occurred in the past, and it has five different aspect combinations. They are:

  • Simple Past
  • Past Progressive
  • Present Perfect
  • Past Perfect
  • Past Perfect Progressive

Simple Past represents a single event that occurred at some point in the past. There’s no change to the verb, and it’s nothing more than a vague statement of fact.

The phrase “John went home” is an example of Simple Past. We don’t know when John went home, only that it happened at some point in the past.

Past Progressive represents an ongoing event or action that happened in the past but got interrupted. You can identify Past Progressive by the “to be + ing” combination.

The phrase “Sarah was fishing” is an example of Past Progressive. We have the “to be” verb (was) plus the “ing” suffix (fishing) to tell us that Sarah began fishing at some point in the past and continued until something stopped her. (Sarah was fishing, but the tides rose up.)

Now, it gets tricky.

Present Perfect represents a past action that has been completed but could happen again. You can identify Present Perfect by the “have + en/ed” combination.

The phrase “I’ve been there before” is an example of Past Progressive. We have the “have” verb plus the “en/ed” suffix (been) to explain that I’ve been to that location before (completed action), but I may go there again. The key to Present Perfect is to emphasize the present when talking about the past.

Past Perfect represents a completed action concerning another action. Like the Present Perfect, you can identify Past Perfect by the “Have + en/ed” combinations.

The phrase “They have eaten” is an example of Past Perfect. We have the “have” verb plus the “en/ed” suffix (eaten) to explain that the act of eating is complete.

And finally, Past Perfect Progressive is used to represent a past action that kept going until another action stopped it. It can be identified by both the “have + en/ed” and the “be + ing” combinations.

The phrase “Karen had been snorkeling” is an example of Past Perfect Progressive. We have the “have” verb (had) plus the “en/ed” (been) suffix, as well as the “to be” (been) and “ing” suffix (snorkeling) to explain that Karen began snorkeling and continued the action until some other action stopped it. (Karen had been snorkeling until the octopus grabbed her leg.)

These verbs and their aspect combinations are crucial when establishing timelines, creating alibies, and telling stories. Most audience members want to know when the story took place. That way, they can compare it with their own lives, and good authors know how to do that with these verb/aspect combinations.

To learn more, visit, or check out Understanding English Grammar PDF.

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