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.
(1) Past simple and (2) past continuous / progressive
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.
(1) Simple past, (2) Past continuous, (3) Past perfect
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. Continue reading…