past tense usage

Dublin Halfpenny Bridge

Krasimir Nikolov from Bulgaria writes:

I have a problem with tenses and try to change them as I write short letters, but I never know if I am right or not. Could you please give me some advice?

Zeinal Abidin Busu from Malaysia writes:

I face the same problem as others with the usage of tenses - present perfect, past perfect, past simple. I know all the rules, but when I speak or write, the rules mess me up. Do you have any opinion about how I can fully understand and use the rules correctly?


Roger Woodham replies:

Think of the main reason for using the past simple, past progressive, past perfect, present perfect, etc, and then try to use them consistently, Zeinal. Here are some examples and some guidance notes to help you.

We'll take a look at three short sample letters, Krasimir, and see how tenses are used in these letters.

In the first letter, a student is writing to her friend, Cynthia, about her first few weeks at university as a 'fresher' or new student. Freshers are students who have just started their first year at university or college.

Note how she uses the present perfect (I've made loads of friends) and present perfect continuous (I've been working quite hard) to relate past actions to the present. She uses the simple past to refer to an action completed in the past (I met him at the freshers' ball.):

Dear Cynth

I've only been here a month, but I've made loads of friends already. I've met a boy called Charlie, who wants me to go out with him, but I haven't decided yet whether I will. I met him at the freshers' ball during the first week of term and we've been bumping into each other ever since.

I've been working quite hard too. I've already written my first essay but my tutor hasn't marked it yet. I'm pretty tired today because I've been preparing for a seminar on Spanish linguistics. I worked on it from seven o' clock till midnight last night.

You must come and see me. There's so much to tell you. So much has happened! How about the weekend after next? Text me.

Love you loads,


In this second letter, Julie is writing to her older sister about a week-end trip to Dublin which is now over. Note how she uses the past perfect to make clear how one action was completed before another action began (we found that our rooms hadn't been prepared). Note how she uses the past continuous to describe a longer activity in progress (my head was spinning; we went to bed as the sun was rising):

My dearest sis

We got here at six thirty on Saturday morning. The coach and ferry journey from Manchester had taken eighteen hours so we were pretty tired. Then when we arrived at our accommodation in the suburbs, we found that our rooms hadn't been prepared so we had to wait for another hour until they were ready.

On Saturday evening, we went on a tour of central Dublin. I had never been in an Irish pub before and by midnight my head was spinning. So from midnight to four a.m. I drank just mineral water. Then, at five in the morning, just as the dawn was breaking, we went for a ride round the historic parts of Dublin in a horse-drawn carriage. We went to bed at six o' clock, just as the sun was rising.

Take care, babe


In this final letter, Julie is writing home from her gap-year base in Mexico City. A gap year is the year taken off by students between school and university. Note how all these past tenses which we have talked about are combined in this letter:

Dear Auntie Mary

Since I arrived here in mid-February, the heat has been getting worse and worse. Now the days are all hot and sticky and it pours with rain every afternoon or evening.

Last weekend Paco and I took the coach to Palenque on the edge of the jungle so that we could visit the Mayan ruins in the early morning to avoid the worst of the heat. You'll never guess who we met as we were climbing down. Two of the Back Street Boys! They were climbing up in the hottest part of the day and I have never seen people who were sweating so much. That night we slept in hammocks in the jungle and had the best sleep we have ever had. But the howler monkeys woke us up at dawn with their loud screaming and I thought they were going to attack us. They didn't!

Lots of love from your favourite niece - you are my favourite aunt!



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