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1. The Past Simple

The Past Simple is used to narrate past events in chronological order

Alice left her family home in the morning and moved to the big city. What a busy day it was! She sat and looked at the cosy living room around her. At last the house was hers. She gazed out at the London skyline with awe.

2. The Past Perfect

The Past Perfect is used to express an action that happened before a definite time in the past.

A writer can use it to re-order the events of a narrative for dramatic effect.

Alice sat and looked at the cosy living room around her. At last the house was hers. What a busy day it had been! She had left her family home in the morning and had moved to the big city. She gazed at the London skyline with awe.

Notice that had need not be repeated if the subject of both verbs is the same.

She had said goodbye to her mother and (had) caught the train to London.

It is not always essential to use the Past Perfect. If it is clear that the events described in the time clause took place before the one in the main clause, the Past Simple can be used.

After she said goodbye to her mother, she caught the train to London.

If it is important to show that the first action was completed before the second one began, the Past Perfect must be used.

When she had raised sufficient capital, she put in an offer on the house.

For reasons of style, it is unwise (and unnecessary) to have to many verbs in the Past Perfect one after another. Once the time aspect of 'past in the past' has been established, the Past Simple can be used as long as there is no ambiguity.

The furniture suited the room perfectly. She had been to auction rooms looking for just the right period pieces, and had found some excellent examples of Regency workmanship. She bought them at good prices, and didn't pay more than five hundred pounds for anything.

3. The Past Continuous and the Past Perfect Continuous.

The Past Continuous and the Past Perfect Continuous (as with all continuous tenses) express ideas of activity in progress or repeated activity.

She was wearing a green velvet dress.

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She was hoping the phone would ring. She had been arranging and rearranging the rooms for weeks.

4. The future-in-the-past

Sometimes, in a narrative, a writer (or speaker) wants to express the future as seen from a specific point in the past. This is called the 'future-in-the-past'. This is expressed by was going to (+ verb) or the Past Continuous.

Alice smiled as she thought of the evening to come. She was meeting Peter, and together they were going to see a play at the Adelphi Theatre.

Would (+ verb) is also used to express the-future-in-the-past, but is restricted to a literary style and is rarely used in spoken English.

She looked around the room, wondering where to put the pictures. She would hang her favourite watercolour above the fire-place, but would have to think carefully about the others.

The uses of these three forms are exactly parallel to the use of the Present Continuous is going to (+ verb), and will to refer to the real future.

I'm meeting Peter tonight. (planned arrangement) We're going to see a play. (planned intention) I'll hang the water-colour above the fire-place. (spontaneous intention) I'll have to think carefully above the others. (will as future auxiliary)

Was/were to (+ verb) also expresses the future-in-the-past, and has the idea of was/were destined to. This, too, is restricted to literary style.

Little did she realise that the evening was to turn out very differently.

5. Past Simple, used to, and would for past habits

Used to can be used to express past habits and states.

We used to go out a lot. (habit) He used to be very short tempered. (state)

Would can express typical behaviour. Whereas used to is quite factual, would looks at past habits rather nostalgically.

We had some lovely holidays by the sea when I was young. We'd spend the day collecting sea- shells, or we'd go for long walks on the cliffs.

Would can not be used to express past states. (We cannot say *He'd live in a lovely cottage.) If the past action happened only once (and is therefore not a habit), the Simple Past must be used.

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6. 'At the beginning', 'In the end' etc.

The words and expressions that tell us when something happens in a story are not all used in quite the same way.

At the beginning (of the story) tells us the chronological point. In the beginning and at first suggest a contrast later. We expect to hear but later the circumstances changed.

At the end of (the story) tells us the chronological point. In the end suggests a contrast earlier. Before, there were problems and uncertainty.

Finally and eventually suggest a long wait. (Finally usually comes before the verb.) The outcome may be positive or negative. At last suggests a very long wait. The outcome is positive.