PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners (2011)
7 Talking about past time
After a brief discussion of a group of irregular verbs that forms its past tense and past participle in a unique way, this chapter examines in depth two ways of talking about the past: (1) the past tense, and (2) the past perfect tense.
While you have been studying lists of irregular verbs ever since you began studying English, there is a large group of irregular verbs that you are probably not even aware of. This group (which is the largest group of irregular verbs that follows the same pattern) is highly unusual in that it is mostly predictable IF you know what to look for. Twenty-four irregular verbs have past tense and past participles that are identical to their base forms. Here are two examples:
All twenty-four of the verbs in this group share the following characteristics:
1. The base form ends in either -t (like put) or -d (like wed).
2. The verbs are all single-syllable words.
3. The verbs are all pronounced with a short vowel.
4. With the exception of hurt three verbs that end in -st (burst, cast, cost) they do not end in final consonant clusters.
All verbs (and only those verbs) that meet the above four conditions have past tenses and past participles identical with their base forms. Here are some verbs ending in -t or -d that FAIL to meet these conditions:
submit (more than one syllable)
eat (long vowel)
build (ends in a consonant cluster)
As we would predict, none of these three verbs has a past tense and a past participle that is identical with its infinitive:
Each question contains a list of four verbs that ends in either-t or -d. Only one of the four verbs meets the criteria and has a past tense and past participle form that is identical with the base form. The other three verbs fail one or more of the criteria and do NOT have past tenses and past participle forms that are identical with their base forms. Identify the one verb that meets the criteria. The first question is done as an example.
The past tense
The past tense is used to refer to events that were completed in the past. The past tense can refer to a single moment in past time. For example:
I got to the office a little after nine.
The past tense can refer to something that occurred repeatedly in the past. For example:
It rained every weekend this summer.
The past tense can refer to a span of past time. For example:
Jayne worked in Washington for about six years.
It is important to bear in mind that the span of time in the last example sentence has been completed before the present moment of time: Jayne no longer works in Washington.
The past tense is also used in two other ways: in hypothetical statements and to make polite requests. These two special uses of the past tense are survivals of the subjunctive verb form that once existed in earlier forms of English.
The most important of these past-tense subjunctives in modern English is to signal that the speaker is talking hypothetically or even contrary to fact. We most often see this kind of past-tense subjunctive in clauses that begin with if. For example:
If I were John, I would be careful what I said to the boss.
In this example, the speaker uses the past tense to signal to the audience that what is being said is hypothetical—the speaker knows full well that he is not John.
The if clause does not have to begin the sentence. It can follow the other clause. For example:
I would be careful what I said to the boss, if I were John.
Here are some more examples of past-tense subjunctives used in if clauses:
If you were in my shoes, what would you do?
If they made a mistake in calculating our expenses, we could be in trouble.
If I said something inappropriate, I apologize.
The other modern English use of the past-tense subjunctive is to show polite deference, especially in asking questions or making requests. For example, if you asked a colleague to do something, you would probably use the present tense:
Can you hold the elevator for a moment?
However, if you were asking your boss the same question, you would probably use the past-tense subjunctive:
Could you hold the elevator for a moment?
If you wanted to issue an invitation to a friend, you would probably use the present tense. For example:
Do you want to go get something to eat?
However, if a boy asked out a girl he did not know well, he would probably use the past-tense subjunctive:
Would you like to go get something to eat?
All of the following sentences contain a past-tense verb in bold. Indicate which meaning the past tense has. If it is past time, write “past time.” If it is hypothetical past-tense subjunctive, write “hypothetical.” If is it polite past-tense subjunctive, write “polite.” The first question is done as an example.
The past perfect tense
The past perfect tense consists of had (the past-tense form of the helping verb have) followed by a second verb in the past participle form. The event or action described in the past perfect tense must be completed prior to some more recent past-time event. The purpose of using the past perfect tense is to emphasize the relative sequence of two past-time events. Here are some examples.
One of the features of the past perfect that can make it difficult to use is that the two time events can appear in the sentence in either order. That is, the later event can precede the earlier event. Here are the same example sentences given above with the clauses in reverse order:
The past perfect is a difficult tense to use because it takes a certain amount of planning. For that reason, you will hear in casual conversation the simple past used where the past perfect should be used. For example:
X They got into a big fight just before they broke up.
Notice that both clauses in this example are in the past tense. To correct the sentence, you have to decide which event occurred first and which occurred second. The use of before in the second clause tells us that (1) they got into a big fight first, and then (2) they broke up. (Cause and eff ect?) Here are the two possible forms of the corrected sentence:
They had gotten into a big fight just before they broke up.
Just before they broke up, they had gotten into a big fight.
Both clauses in the following sentences contain a past tense verb in bold. Draw a line through the verb that is incorrect and write the corrected past perfect tense. The first question is done as an example.
When we bought the house, it was empty for two years.
When we bought the house, it was empty for two years. had been
1. The storm closed the runways before we were cleared for takeoff. ____________________
2. When we returned from vacation, we found that our house was broken into. ________
3. We had to forfeit the game because we used an ineligible player. ____________________
4. We were bumped from the flight even though the airlines already confirmed our reservations. ____________________
5. Even before they looked at the house, they made a decision to buy it. ____________
6. The office already closed before we got there. ____________________
7. Even before he got the check, Bobby already spent the money. ____________________
8. Fred’s counselor advised him to change majors after she looked at Fred’s grades.
9. After he made a big sale, he was promoted to the head of marketing. ____________________
10. We pulled over to the side of the road after the “check engine” light came on. ___________