Narrative tenses in conversational English – past, present, and future

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 simple
Past perfect
Past continuous
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.

narrative tenses simple past and past continuous
(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.

Narrative tenses
(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. …

Threw me for a loop – idiom

If you hear someone say that something “threw me for a loop” it means that something surprised them to the point that they didn’t know what to do.

In general, the idiom to throw someone/something for a loop means to cause great surprise, confusion, or astonishment. The related idiom to knock someone/something for a loop has the same meaning.

The main idea is that things are going well, circumstances are good, and suddenly something unexpected happens that causes trouble, confusion, surprise, or amazement.

Example sentences using to throw someone for a loop.

1. Just when you think you have life figured out, something will come along and throw you for a loop. (Meaning, surprise you with some challenge or difficulty)

2. Here is one last grammar point that throws learners for a loop. (Meaning, causes learners to be confused)

3. The Brexit vote result threw Wall Street and the global markets for a loop. (Meaning, caused confusion and/or surprise)

4 Polar bears are getting thrown for a loop as the polar ice disappears due to global warming. (Meaning, the lack of habitat is causing confusion and trouble for the bears)

As the examples above illustrate, to throw someone/something for a loop is also used in passive constructions with the verbs to get and to be

to get thrown for a loop
to be thrown for a loop

Let’s look at the polar bear and Brexit examples using these passive constructions:

1. Polar bears are getting thrown for a loop by climate change.

2. Polar bears are being thrown for a loop by climate change.

idiom throw for a loop
The disappearing polar ice caps are throwing polar bears for a loop.

1. Wall Street and the global markets got thrown for a loop by the Brexit vote.

2. Wall Street and the global markets were thrown for a loop by the Brexit vote.

Subject verb agreement is important in these constructions. Remember that it is the first verb (the finite verb) that needs to be changed so that it agrees with the subject.

043 – Real English conversations: Lori scores a year’s supply of toilet paper (archive)

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Hi English Learners! Lori here, your teacher from Better at English.com. For your listening practice today, I’ve got another Real English conversation. It’s actually one of my favorite conversations from deep in the Better at English archives. I’ve re-edited it so that new listeners can enjoy it.

This conversation features lots of idioms and slang, and is a good example of a spontaneous, authentic English conversation between two people who know each other well. It also features lots of narrative tenses. You can read more about the verb tenses used in this conversation here.

As always, you can find the complete transcript and vocabulary study guide at betteratenglish.com/transcripts.

Are you ready to practice your English listening skills? Here comes the conversation.


Conversation transcript

Lori: Yeah, something kind of funny happened to me when I was shopping for office supplies today.

Andy: OK, what happened?

L: Well, my boss had, had given me a list of office supplies to buy on my way home from a teaching gig, because I drive right past the office supply shop.

And I’m always happy to do it, ’cause, as you know, I LOVE office supplies — it’s almost like my, my “office-supply porn” — I can go in and get my daily fix of all the nice things for, you know, keeping organized, and folders and notebooks, and…I had a whole list of things to buy.

And when I got up to the register and the clerk was ringing me up, the total came to over a thousand Swedish crowns. Which is not a problem, I mean, they just just send us an invoice; it wasn’t like I had to worry about money. But then he said, “Because you spent so much money here today, you can go pick one of those rolls of toilet paper over there.”

A: Toilet paper!

L: Yeah, toilet paper! And, I mean, we’re always happy to get free toilet paper; you know, it’s one of those useful things that, that, you know, a business has to buy…

A: You can never have too much.

L: Yeah, exactly. But the thing is, I looked at where he was pointing, and it was these HUGE, GIGANTIC, industrial-sized packages, all shrink-wrapped in plastic, of toilet paper…I mean, it was HUGE, I could NOT BELIEVE that I was getting one for free.

A:OK, like a year’s supply of toilet paper.

L: At least.

A: [laughs]

Just a sec! Three informal English phrases for asking people to wait a moment

If you have ever taken an English course, you probably learned the phrase “One moment, please” or “just a moment” for politely asking someone to wait for a very short period of time.

Phrases using moment are useful for formal situations. But in everyday conversational English they can sound stiff and unnatural.

Here are three informal ways to ask people to wait for a very short time. Informal expressions like these make your English sound more relaxed and conversational.

  1. (just) a minute
  2. (just) a second
  3. (just) a sec* / one sec

* sec is short for second

Examples

Context: Imagine you are at work, sitting at your desk writing an email. You need a very short time – somewhere between 10 seconds and one minute – to finish it. Your colleague approaches and asks you a question. You want to tell him that you can help as soon as you’re finished.

Colleague: Hey, can you help me with the copy machine? The paper’s jammed again.
You: Just a sec, I just need to finish this email.

Colleague: Hey, we’re about to order lunch from the deli. Do you want anything?
You: Just a second, I’m almost done here.

Colleague: Hey, have you got a minute to go over the Henderson Report?
You: Sure, just a minute. I just need to backup this file in case my computer crashes again.

Adding a reason for the inconvenience

Notice that in each example, you give your colleague a reason for the delay (I’m almost done here, etc.). Needing to wait can feel inconvenient for the person who wants your attention. Giving someone a reason for inconveniencing them is a way to “soften the blow” in polite English.

Of course, in face-to-face situations the other person will often be able to see why you need a little bit of time, so you don’t have to give the reason. Your friendly tone of voice and body language will be polite enough.

However, if you are using these phrases on the phone, where the other person can’t see what you’re doing, it’s more important to give a reason for the inconvenience. For example:

Colleague on phone: Hey, could we meet up this week to go over the Henderson report?
You: Sure! Just a sec, let me pull up my calendar.

Bonus vocabulary

To pull (sth) up (phrasal verb): In the context of computer programs and digital files, like the calendar in the example above, to pull something up means to make something visible on your computer screen so you can use it.

Here are a couple more examples of to pull something up:

1. We just need a minute to pull up the Henderson report.

2. Could you pull up my account details?

English learning tip

You may have noticed that many of the expressions above include the word just. Just is extremely frequent in English (no. 66 according to corpus data). Just has an intimidating number of meanings and uses.

Trying to memorize and apply every rule about how to use a word like just can drive you crazy. For most English learners it’s more useful to focus on one specific use, and then learn a couple of useful phrases that you can use right away in your spoken English practice. Trying to remember and use newly learned language frequently is the fastest way to make it a natural part of your active vocabulary. When one use is familiar, you can choose another one.

I hope you have enjoyed learning these informal ways to say “One moment, please.” Have fun using them!

How to use very and not very – intensifiers in English

You can do a lot of things with the word very in English. The simplest use of very is as an intensifer. An intensifier is a word that makes another word stronger or adds emphasis.

Very as an intensifier

You put very directly in front of the adjective or adverb that you want to intensify.

In the sentences below, strong and heavy are adjectives. Very adds intensity.

Examples
My friend Sasha is very strong.
She can lift very heavy weights.

very as an intensifier with positive adjectives
This is Sasha in action. She is very strong.

Very works the same way with adverbs. Remember, an adverb is a word that tells you more about a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a whole sentence.

In the examples below, hard and easily are adverbs, and very adds emphasis to the verb phrases.

Examples
Sasha has trained very hard for many years.
Now she can lift 300 kilos very easily.

Not very

But what happens if you add the word not to very? Does it just remove the emphasis? For example, what does the following sentence mean?

My friend Bob is not very strong.

Does it mean:
a) Bob’s strength is normal/average
b) Bob’s strength is a little below normal/average
c) Bob’s strength is far below normal/average. In fact, Bob is WEAK.

042 – Make the Most of your Motivation part 2 of 2 – Real English Conversations

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Introduction
Hi English learners! Lori here, your teacher from Betteratenglish.com. Last week I shared the first part of a cool conversation I had with Dr. BJ Fogg, all about making the most of your motivation. Today you’ll be hearing part two, the final part of this conversation. If you missed the first part, make sure to go back and listen to part one before you listen to part two.

At the end of part one, BJ was telling me about his goal to get better at writing neatly on a whiteboard. He knew that he needed to practice a lot if he wanted to improve, so he wanted to make it as easy as possible to practice every day. In this part of the conversation, you’ll hear what he did to change his environment to make practicing easy, even on days when his motivation is low. You’ll also hear about how his practice routine is working for him.

As always, you can find the full transcript of this conversation, including a bonus vocabulary lesson at betteratenglish.com/transcripts.

Are you ready for the conversation? Let’s go!

Conversation transcript
BJ: One of the habits I’m doing right now is, I’m practicing whiteboarding. I’m practicing with markers writing on a whiteboard. You know, like teachers do.

Lori: Right.

BJ: And I want my handwriting to get much, much better and so, I’m practicing every day. But anyway, what I did was I went out and I got some marker paper, I got a bunch of markers, I got different whiteboards so I have whiteboards in different parts of my house. I have the marker paper, I have markers, I have a marker in my bathroom, one in my sun room, I have a whole set in my office, I have a whole set in my other office. In other words, I made it really, really easy to practice writing with markers by getting all the materials and getting everything set up. And I did that when I was in a period of high motivation. So now, it’s really easy just to pick up a marker and practice. I don’t have to be super motivated.

Lori: Right. And– and you can tell yourself that, you know, “You have all your materials. It’s all easy right at hand.” You could even tell yourself, “I’m just going to write one sentence. That’s all I feel like doing right now and —

BJ: Yeah. In fact, just before your call, that’s what I did. I was sitting down and I was going to read but I was like, “No, no. I’m just going to, like, get out the marker board and write one sentence.” And I ended up filling up the entire marker board because I thought, “Oh, this is kind of fun. I’m going to keep going.”

Lori: Yeah —

BJ: And then, you called.

Lori: Have– have you — oh, I’m sorry to interrupt your practice…
[laughs]

BJ: [crosstalk] No, I was expecting your call.

Lori: …while you were on a roll. But yeah, and I guess…how’s your writing? Has it been improving? It must be improving.

BJ: Oh my gosh, it’s so much better.

Lori: And that —

BJ: Yeah.

Lori: Because I can imagine when you start seeing that your efforts are paying off, that that makes it more likely that you’re going to pick up those pens and do your practicing.

BJ: Yeah, and I– I think there are some behaviors or skills where it becomes clear pretty quickly — your progress. And then there are some, at least outcomes, where it’s harder to measure like, “Wow, am I really reducing my stress? Am I really getting healthier? Am I really…,” you know, whereas the whiteboarding — and then, I practice guitar every day…
Lori: Oh! Cool.

BJ: …and– and other things. Yeah, but in those two cases, it’s very clear that you’re getting better. It’s just obvious that you’re getting better. And the writing is one that I may have other people join me in because…and then take pictures before and after because it’s– it’s quite dramatic.
Lori: I…yeah, I can imagine if you practice. I mean, I haven’t practiced writing really since I was a kid; and learning to write and then, you know, you get your hand style and you think that that’s sort of what you’re stuck with for the rest of your life.

[laughs]

BJ: And part of it is changing; changing like what your style is. You know, because my normal style doesn’t work very well on a whiteboard so I have, sort of…it’s almost like having, well, in some ways, speaking a different language because you shift into a different gear. So, I speak Spanish and French, and I know when I speak those languages, I go into a different gear. It’s just different. And when I’m writing on a whiteboard, it’s not like I’m writing in a notebook. It’s just…I’m drawing in a different– different movements and different ways of thinking, well, about the letters and the spacing of the letters. And on the whiteboard, I’m trying to get things very straight, up and down just like you might try to get an accent, like, you know, an accent right and you’re really focusing. I think there’s probably a lot in common about learning languages and practicing other skills. …

041 – Make the most of your motivation – a conversation with BJ Fogg (part 1 of 2)

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Introduction

Hi English learners! Lori here, your teacher from Betteratenglish.com. You are in for a treat with this episode of Real English Conversations. It’s a really special episode, and I’m so happy to be sharing it with you.

A while back I had the huge honor of having a conversation with one of my own personal heroes, Dr. BJ Fogg. BJ is the director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. Put simply, he’s a scientist who spends a lot of time studying how to help people create desirable habits and getting those habits to stick. The concept of motivation plays an important role in BJ’s work. I think most people would agree that motivation is incredibly important for successful language learning, maybe even the most important thing. When you’re highly motivated, it’s easy. But when your motivation is low, it’s not so easy.

BJ has lots of practical advice about how you can make most of your motivation, no matter if it’s high or low. His way of thinking about motivation as a wave blew my mind when I first came across it. The motivation wave can easily be applied to language learning, so I am super excited to share it with you.

As always, you can find the full transcript of this conversation, including a bonus vocabulary lesson at betteratenglish.com/transcripts.

OK, you’re about to hear part one of the conversation. I’ll pop in again at the end to give you four things you can do to get the most benefit from this episode.

Are you ready? Let’s go!

Conversation transcript
Lori: Can– can people depend on motivation when they’re trying to learn things and do things that are difficult?

BJ: Well, in order to do anything difficult, you have to have motivation or you won’t do them. So either, if it’s…if the behavior or task is difficult, you’ve got to find some way to summon up some motivation; or if you make the task simpler, you won’t need so much motivation. So you basically have two options: boost your motivation or make the task easier to do.

Lori: Okay yeah, that– that makes a lot of sense. And I— I noticed in your video, you said that…people often, like teachers or people trying to initiate behavior change or help people change their behavior, that, you don’t like to hear them talking about, “motivating behavior change,” you prefer the term “facilitating” behavior change. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.

BJ: Yeah. In English, there’s a common phrase that people use when they talk about behavior change, “We need to motivate behavior change.” And yes, you could motivate behavior change but there’s other ways to get behavior to happen. And if you’re looking at long-term behaviors or getting people to create habits, focusing on motivation is the wrong focus. You really need to look at, how do we make the behavior easy to do? And also, it’s related to the habits — how do we make the behavior rewarding or emotionally satisfying? And so, the thing that I’m worried about is by using that phrase, “motivate behavior change,” people are really limiting themselves in how they think about the different ways to design for behavior change.

Lori: It’s interesting to me, coming from, you know, having a background as a teacher. I can remember from my initial teacher training, we were often…it was either implied or— or sometimes even overtly stated that the idea was, “You have to motivate your students. You have to do things to keep their motivation up.” And— and of course, you know, [as a teacher] you want to be motivating and inspiring to people. But when I saw your video, your presentation about the motivation wave, it’s kind of like, a little bell went off that– you know, that it makes so much sense. Could you just explain just the basic, basic idea about the motivation wave — talking about the peaks and valleys, and difficult and hard?

Practice your listening with CC subtitles

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9enAEDNVpdY

BJ: Everyone, I think, has experienced this phenomenon in their life where they get excited about doing some behavior or some set of behaviors like, getting healthier or reducing stress. Now that excitement, as it goes up, I decided to call that, a “motivation wave” because it will go up but it will also come back down. So, it’s not a constant thing. And what the motivation wave allows you to do, when the motivation wave is high — you can do hard things, you can spend lots of time, you can put in a lot of effort, you can persist through hardship if your motivation is high. And as your motivation comes down, you can’t do the hard things anymore, you only can do simple things. And so the key to understand…there’s a few keys: Number one, that motivation won’t always be high. That goes up and down. And then two, when motivation is high, that’s the right time to get yourself or other people to do hard things. And when motivation is low, you can’t do hard things; what you can do are simple things. And so designing — if you’re trying to get yourself to study more or exercise more or what have you and your motivation’s really low, then you should take, let’s say, the study task, and break it down to just three minutes and say, …

040 – Daily Rituals part 5 of 5 – Real English Conversations

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Introduction
Hi English learners! Lori here, your teacher from Betteratenglish.com. In this episode of Real English Conversations, you’ll hear part 5 of my conversation with Kyla. This is the final part of our conversation about the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. In the previous episode we talked about dealing with distractions and interruptions when you’re trying to work. This time we talk about one of the biggest interrupters of all: email. We also talk about ways to structure your day to make it easier to do important things.

If you want to read along as you listen, you can download the full transcript, including a bonus vocabulary lesson at betteratenglish.com/transcripts.

After the conversation I’ll be back with three questions you can use for speaking practice. Oh, and one final note: I’ve marked this episode as explicit because near the end of the conversation I say a couple of mildly vulgar words. They’re very common slang words that you hear all the time on TV, but I’m playing it safe and warning you anyway. You never know what someone might find offensive!

OK, let’s get on with the conversation!

Real English Conversation Transcript

Kyla: I was going to say, I guess, one drawback about the book actually is that so much of it is, there’s not— there’s not very many current contemporary people in it to ask about their rituals. It’s, yeah, an awful lot of people from the last century before, before internet and so it would be— it would be nice to find, you know, the daily rituals of more people living now with the different forms of communication that we have now.

Lori: Right.

Kyla: Because of course there were several people that would have, you know, they’d have their hour in which they would make their phone calls to their agents or their phone calls to newspapers or, you know, when it was still there. Because you still had the communication that was required with the— the rest of the world. But I think it was probably much easier to schedule, “Okay, this is the time that I’m going to be on the telephone because this is when I have access to a telephone or…”

Lori: Right.

Kyla: You know, “This is the time of day when I sit and write my letters and read my letters,” which there’s no reason why we can’t do that now but I think it’s easier when you have a physical letter that you can put in a pile on the— on the bedside table or the coffee table and…

Lori: Right. And it’s— it’s also…there’s a limit there, you know. It’s self-limiting. You see, “Okay, I have five letters I have to answer…”

Kyla: That’s right.

overwhelmed
Overwhelmed by the endless stream of email
Lori: …and you know that it’s not like today with email where at any second, you can get more added to that pile and you never know when you’re going to get one.

Kyla: That’s— that’s right. You’re sitting there answering, it’s like, “I have five emails to respond to,” and by the time you’re done, there’s five more. [laughs]

Lori: Exactly. Or you send your answers and then the person replies right away with still more questions, and it never ends.

Kyla: Yeah.

Lori: So there— there was more of a sense of, like, these finite chunks of work that you could do in a given period than— than now where the boundaries between work and not work and yeah, it’s just getting fuzzier and fuzzier all the time, I think.

Kyla: That’s right. Yeah.

Lori: But I agree. I agree with you that it would be great to hear some examples or read some examples of people living in our time dealing with the— the kind of problems we’re dealing with every day. Yeah, very cool. Let me see. Was there something else? I guess my— my…I don’t know if it would be my final question, but one question that I have for you is, if you have picked up anything from the book that you have started to apply to your own life, or that has somehow changed the way you approach getting your creative work done or your productive work done?

William James
William James knew how to get things done.
Kyla: One of the— one of the things for sure is, and I actually went and found the quote again because I thought it was a brilliant quote, and it’s from William James. And he talks about what he calls the “effortless custody of automation.”

Lori: Whoah!

Kyla: I have really tried to do sort of the opposite of automating the creative process, but that’s automating the mundane process. And I found a little bit of success and I think— I think it has grown over time and will continue to grow but sort of, like, we kind of have a routine in my household of, like, when dishes get washed and when they get put away and who does what. And I think it sort of making habits out of the mundane but other necessary things that have to happen and just kind of getting those things out of the way without having to think about them leaves you more time and more space to do the things that really matter, which, you know, is creative work or learning new things. And I think that was sort of, oddly enough, one of the things that I really took from that book, and it’s almost the opposite of what the book was about in some ways. [laughs] …