One of the benefits of my writing critique group is that when I critique someone else’s work, I feel compelled to be absolutely sure about the advice I’m giving. So I’ll often do way more research into a topic when I’m giving someone else feedback.
I did a little research into past tenses for my writing critique group, and thought I’d share it here.
There are nine different past tenses for English, but I researched three of interest to our critique group.
Simple past: I walked to school. (I did something in the past.)
Past Perfect: I had walked to school. (In a story where I am writing in the past tense, I am describing something even earlier: the past of the past.)
Habitual Past 1: When I was younger, I would walk to school. (Something I did habitually in the past, but it needs some kind of time qualifier to know we’re talking about a past time.)
Habitual Past 2: I used to walk to school. (Also, something I did habitually in the past.)
These are always indications of habitual past, and they are the only two ways to describe habitual past activities:
- would [verb] (requires a time indicator)
- used to [verb]
My writing teacher would often suggest doing a writing exercise to help makes concepts concrete.
For example, you could write a scene describing eating breakfast. If only needs to be a paragraph or two. Write it once in the simple past, one in past perfect, and once in habitual past.
I’ll do the exercise with a different example: Going to school.
Scene 1, simple past. I’m writing about the past, but describing it as it happens:
I kissed my mom goodbye, shrugged on my backpack, and walked outside. It was cool and crisp. I zipped up my jacket and walked to school. It took me about fifteen minutes to get there, and before I knew it, I was standing outside the school building. With trepidation, I entered.
Scene 2: past perfect. I’m writing about the past of the past. In this case, I’m writing from the perspective of lunchtime that day. Note that the first sentence is simple past to set the context, then I move into past perfect.
I took my lunch out of my backpack, and unpacked the sandwich my mother had made for me. That morning, I had kissed my mom goodbye, shrugged on my backpack and walked outside. It had been cool and crisp. I had zipped up my jacket and walked to school. It had taken me about fifteen minutes to get there, and before I knew it, I had been standing outside the school building. With trepidation, I had entered.
Scene 3: habitual past. I’m writing about what usually happened.
On the first of each elementary school year, I would kiss my mom goodbye, shrug on my backpack and walk outside. It would be cool and crisp. I would zip up my jacket and walk to school. It would take me about fifteen minutes to get there, and before I knew it, I would be standing outside the school building. With trepidation, I would enter.
I avoided contractions (because both I had and I would contract to I’d) which makes it a little awkward, but hopefully still clear.
These are the articles I read: