green_grrl (green_grrl) wrote in fandom_grammar,
green_grrl
green_grrl
fandom_grammar

Answer: Present tense and past events

Our question today is from ely_baby, who wants to know: When writing mostly in the present tense, what tense should be used for events in the past? 

There are a lot of past tense choices, and all of them can work with a present tense narrative. I will use Daisy, from Agents of SHIELD, to illustrate the options with some present day action and past history. 

Daisy rides in the van towards the location of the disturbance, not knowing which of her skills she will use once they arrive.
Here, Daisy is engaged in present tense action, with a little future tense anticipation thrown in. Now watch what happens in the next sentence when she thinks of past events. (Note that anything she is or thinks or feels stays in the present tense; it is only the actual past events that use a past tense.)

A. She feels ready for a fight—she trained with May for a long time to get as good as she is

B. She feels ready for a fight—she was training with May for a long time to get as good as she is

C. She feels ready for a fight—she has trained with May for a long time to get as good as she is

D. She feels ready for a fight—she has been training with May for a long time to get as good as she is

E. She feels ready for a fight—she had trained with May for a long time to get as good as she is

F. She feels ready for a fight—she had been training with May for a long time to get as good as she is
All six of these past tense options can be correct, but they have different nuances. 

Example A is the simple past tense, and it is pretty straightforward. The simple past can work for a one-time event (She focuses on the mission at hand instead of the finger she sprained in their last sparring match.), while in example A the phrase "for a long time" makes it clear the training happened over many, many past occasions. 

Example B is the past progressive tense (sometimes called “past continuous”), and it refers to something that took time—either one extended event, several events, or both. You would not use “finger she was spraining” to explain what happened in their last match; that was something that happened once, in an instant. You would say She was training when she sprained her finger. The use of past progressive in example B does not flow as well as the past tenses in the other examples. Past progressive works best with other past tenses, or in parallel construction with a present progressive verb: Last month Daisy was kicking boards in the gym; today she is splintering a door in its frame.

Examples C and D are the present perfect and the present perfect progressive tenses, respectively. These are both used to indicate something from the past that is true at the present moment: May has trained Daisy. This tense is also sometimes used to demonstrate a contrast with the present: Daisy has sprained her finger in the past, but the little overstretch in yesterday's session is barely noticeable today. The present perfect progressive, like the past progressive, emphasizes that what is described happened in either one extended event, several events, or both. In the cases of examples C and D, the present perfect can imply that May training Daisy was happening right up to recently.

Examples E and F are the past perfect and the past perfect progressive tenses, respectively. These are used to indicate something that happened in the past and has ended. Daisy had trained with May in the past, but that hard work is done, and the implication is that that training is no longer happening. Daisy had sprained her finger last week, but it feels fine now. With the past perfect progressive, again, it emphasizes that what is described happened in either one extended event, several events, or both, and in this case stopped happening at some point before the present moment: Daisy had been spraining her fingers, until she learned to tuck them properly.

Let's use some past tenses with a linking verb (to be), rather than an action verb, to get more of a feel for when to use them in context with a present tense narrative.

Daisy is an Inhuman, but she was an agent first. 
Simple past for a simple sentence.

She has been in control of her powers for only a few months, but they feel like a natural extension of her. 
Present perfect, because she gained control over her powers and she still has it.

Before becoming Daisy, she had been Skye, and she still has the hacker skills associated with that handle. 
Past perfect, because Skye was her name but is not anymore. 

In short:
Simple past—applicable to most past events, and especially single, short events
Past progressive—applicable to past events that happened over a long time or multiple times
Present perfect—applicable to past events, and can imply up to the present
Present perfect progressive—applicable to past events, especially up to the present, that happened over a long time or multiple times
Past perfect—applicable to past events that ended sometime in the past
Past perfect progressive—applicable to past events that ended sometime in the past, that happened over a long time or multiple times


The website englishpages.com is designed for English as a foreign language students and goes into great detail about the different kinds of uses the different past tenses can be put to. Try starting at their Simple Past page and then working your way through the other tenses using their left menu.

For more explorations of verbs and tenses, see the fandom_grammar posts on Verbs 101 by momebie and supercheesegirl, writing in present tense by melayneseahawk, and past or past perfect by pinkeuphoria1.
Tags: !answer, author:green_grrl, pos:verbs, pos:verbs:tense, pos:verbs:tense:past, pos:verbs:tense:past perfect, pos:verbs:tense:perfect
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