Telling stories is a huge part of conversational English, so being comfortable with narrative tenses is important for English fluency.
Most English lessons about narrative tenses in English focus on the following 4 tenses:
Past perfect continuous
But did you know that you can use present tenses in English conversations even when you are telling a story about the past? This is often overlooked in ESL / EFL lessons about narrative tenses.
English teachers often say that when you tell a story about something that happened in the past, you should only use past tenses. That is generally true for formal narratives, such as fiction writing or telling structured stories/anecdotes. In more “formal” stories speakers tend to stick to past tense verb forms.
But what about informal conversations? Do you have to stick to past tenses when you, for example, tell your friend about the terrible accident you narrowly avoided while driving home from work a couple of days ago?
In conversational stories, you don’t have to stick to past tenses. You can shift between past, present and even future verb forms. Native speakers do this all the time.
But that doesn’t mean that anything goes! You can’t merrily shift between past and present with no rhyme or reason. Native speakers don’t randomly choose verb tenses when they telling their stories. There are solid grammatical principles driving their choice of verb forms.
While writing the transcript for one of the Better at English podcast episodes, I noticed some great examples of past-present narrative shifts. So let’s look at a few!
Most of the conversation is me telling my friend about an exciting experience I’d had earlier that day while shopping for office supplies. (Yes, I get excited about office supplies!).
Conversation extract 1
Lori: Something kind of funny happened SIMPLE PAST (1) to me when I was shopping PAST CONTINUOUS (2) for office supplies today.
The excerpt above is a good example of using the past continuous (2) to give background context for the important events that make up the story. The important events (1) are given in the simple past. You can see this relationship in the timeline below.
So far the conversation is within the realm of standard narrative tenses. But have a look at this next example:
Conversation extract 2
L: My boss had given PAST PERFECT (3) me a list of office supplies to buy on my way home from a teaching gig, because I drive SIMPLE PRESENT (4) right past the office supply shop.
The first verb (3) is in the past perfect. It makes sense because when we tell stories in English we use the past perfect as “the past in the past,” to talk about events that happened before the events that make up our real story. In story time, I received the list BEFORE I did the shopping. You can see the relationship between (1), (2), and (3) in the timeline below.
But the above example also includes a simple present verb (4): “because I drive right past the office supply shop.”
What grammar rule is behind that sudden shift to the simple present?
The answer might not be immediately obvious.
“I drive right past” tells the listener that it’s something I do regularly. It’s a repeated action that extends beyond the past of the story time and into the “now” of the moment of speaking. This use of the simple present (4) can be represented as a sequence of repeated events on the timeline.
Even when telling “stories” in conversation, where you would expect past tense verb forms, speakers are free to step out of the linear sequence of story events to talk about thoughts, states, happenings and other things in the “now.”
I continued my story with more simple present verbs to talk about general truths or states:
Conversation extract 3
Lori: And I’m SIMPLE PRESENT (5) always happy to do it, ’cause, as you know SIMPLE PRESENT (5), I love SIMPLE PRESENT (5) office supplies
After this shift to several present tense verbs (5), I continued the actual story by shifting back to the simple past (6) to re-establish “story time.” Here is the entire extract:
And I’m SIMPLE PRESENT (5) always happy to do it, ’cause, as you know SIMPLE PRESENT (5), I love SIMPLE PRESENT (5) office supplies — it’s SIMPLE PRESENT (5) almost like my, my “office-supply porn” — I can SIMPLE PRESENT (5) go in and get my daily fix of all the nice things for, you know SIMPLE PRESENT (5), keeping organized, and folders and notebooks, and…I had SIMPLE PAST (6) a whole list of things to buy.
The key point to remember about telling stories in English is that speakers are free to shift between past tenses for the past events of “story time,” and present tenses for asides, comments, observations, and other things that are relevant in the “now” of the moment of speaking.
Many learners of English get confused when they hear native speakers of English seemingly “breaking” the rules that they have been taught in English class. What they need to understand is that the real rules of grammar are extremely complex and have a lot to do with the speaker’s psychological point of view about the situation and events. For practical reasons, teachers need to simplify these rules, often stripping them down to the bare essentials. Otherwise they wouldn’t be teachable.
That is why you might hear native speakers saying lots of things that seem to break the rules you have been taught. Teachers can’t cover every tiny detail.
This is just the briefest introduction to a huge topic, but I hope it will give you something concrete to watch out for as you read and listen to English conversations.
To finish up, below you will find more examples of narrative past tenses mixes with the simple present. They are from the same conversation. Can figure out why each tense was used?
If you have questions, feel free to email me or to post them in the comments section below.
Conversation extract 4
And when I got up to SIMPLE PAST the register and the clerk was ringing me up PAST CONTINUOUS, the total came to SIMPLE PAST over a thousand Swedish crowns. Which is SIMPLE PRESENT not a problem, I mean, they just just send SIMPLE PRESENT us an invoice; it wasn’t SIMPLE PAST like I had to SIMPLE PASTworry about money. But then he said SIMPLE PAST, “Because you spent SIMPLE PAST so much money here today, you can SIMPLE PRESENT go pick one of those rolls of toilet paper over there.”
References beyond personal observation:
Leech, Geoffrey N. Meaning and the English Verb. 3rd ed. (2004)
Quirk, Randolph. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. (2010)