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Thomas Hauck, Editor: Verb Tenses and Describing the Past

When you write about events that happened in the past, the simplest way is to use what is appropriately called the simple past:

A) Jack and Jill went up the hill.

B) I gave her the message.

The simple past describes an event that took place over a definable period of time and has been completed.

How about an event that took place in the past, but just before another past event? Then you use the past continuous:

A) Jack and Jill were going up the hill when their mother called them.

B) I was giving the message to her when my phone rang.

Then there is the event that took place in the past before another event. The second event is clearly separated in time from the first. Then you use the past perfect:

A) Jack and Jill had gone up the hill when their mother called them.

B) I had given her the message when my phone rang.

Lastly, there are long term events that occur before another event. This is the past perfect continuous:

A) Jack and Jill had been going up the hill for two hours when their mother called them.

B) I had been giving her messages for weeks, but then she disappeared.

This is easy enough, but it can get tricky when you are describing conversations. Here’s an example.

I called my boss [simple past]. I told him [simple past] that I had written the new computer code [past perfect, because it describes an event that took place over time].

He replied [simple past], “You wrote the new computer code?” [use the simple past because it is a direct quote.]

I told him that I had been doing it [past perfect continuous] but I was interrupted by a phone call [simple past].

He said, “You were doing it when someone called?” [past continuous, because it is a direct quote, followed by simple past.]

“Yes,” I said, “I was doing it [past continuous]. Then Bernie called [simple past.] He had said [past perfect] that he would call.” [conditional].

You get the idea. It’s all about correct time management so that your reader never gets lost.

Thomas Hauck ghostwriter, book editor, author

– Thomas Hauck, freelance Boston book editor, ghostwriter, and proofreader, invites you to contract him when you need editing services on your next book project.

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