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Session 2

When we tell stories, jokes and anecdotes we use particular verb forms. Most of these, but not all, are past forms. Learn more and discover how you can also use the present to talk about the past.

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6 Minute Grammar

Narrative tenses

Catherine saw a monkey in a tree on her way to work today. Hear more about this story and find out how to use narrative tenses in this episode of 6 Minute Grammar.

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Finn   
Hello. Welcome to 6 Minute Grammar with me, Finn.

Catherine    
And me, Catherine. Hello.

Finn   
In today’s programme we’re talking about narrative tenses…

Catherine    
Yes, narrative tenses. That means the past simple tense, the past continuous, the past perfect and the past perfect continuous.

Finn   
Yes, we use these tenses to describe events that happened in the past, and for telling stories.

Catherine    
We’ll explain when to use each tense…

Finn
…we’ll give you lots of examples…

Catherine    
…and there’ll be quiz at the end of the show, so listen carefully! Let’s begin with the past simple. We use the past simple tense for events and actions that started and finished in the past. Here’s Mike with our first example.

Mike  
I had a terrible day last Monday! It all started when I woke up late.

Catherine    
So those three verbs: had, started and woke up, are all in the past simple, because they describe events which started and finished in the past.

Finn   
Now if Mike wants to describe the background to his story, or to talk about things that started before his story started, and continued through his story, he can use the past continuous tense, like this:

Mike  
It all started when I woke up late. I opened the curtains. It was raining and the traffic was moving very slowly.

Catherine    
So that’s it was raining and the traffic was moving, in the past continuous, to set the scene and describe past activities.

Finn   
We’ll come back to the past continuous a little later on, but first, let’s look at two more tenses. First, the past perfect. Mike.

Mike  
When I looked at my phone, I realised I had slept through the alarm!

Finn   
So, Mike used the past perfect I had slept with the past simple when I looked and another past simple I realised to show one past action happened before another one.

Catherine    
That's right. So, first, Mike slept through his alarm, then he looked at his watch and realised. Mike swaps the order of events in his sentence, and uses the past perfect tense to signal that the second thing he talks about actually happened first. One more time please Mike?

Mike  
When I looked at my phone, I realised I had slept through the alarm!

Catherine
The past perfect continuous works in pretty much the same way, but this time for activities that continued for a length of time.

Mike              
When I looked at my phone, I realised I had slept through the alarm. I had been sleeping like a log!

Finn
Mike had been sleeping like a log. A past activity that continued for a length of time, before another past event. So we use a range of tenses to build up a story about past events. Let’s demonstrate this now. Catherine, tell me something that happened to you today …

Catherine    
Ok, Finn. Well, funnily enough, while I was walking to work this morning, I saw a monkey in a tree.

Finn   
You never did.

Catherine
I did.

Finn
I don’t believe you.

Catherine
It’s true.

Finn
OK. Catherine combined the past continuous I was walking with the past simple I saw.

Catherine
That’s right, and I did that to show that one action happened whilst another one was still happening.

Finn   
For interrupted activities, in other words. So, Catherine, what happened next?

Catherine    
Well, a man told me that the monkey had chased a cat up a tree.

Finn
Really?

Catherine
Yeah.

Finn
Right. So that’s past perfect to say what happened earlier in the past.

Catherine
Exactly.

Finn
But did it really happen, Catherine? I’m not sure about this.

Catherine
No. But let's go with it.

Finn   
Yes. OK. So Catherine, what was a monkey doing in a busy London street?

Catherine    
Well … a film crew had been making an advert when the monkey spotted a cat and chased it up the tree.

Finn   
I really don’t believe this, but there were two more examples of the past simple spotted and chased with the past perfect continuous had been making.

IDENT       
You’re listening to BBC Learning English.

Finn   
We’re talking about narrative tenses.

Catherine    
Time for a quiz. Fill the gaps in this short story. Number 1. Inspector Jones was called to a robbery. But by the time he arrived, the thief… a) went or b) had gone.

Finn   
It’s b) had gone.

Catherine    
That’s right. Number two. While he [sfx ding] in the garden, Inspector Jones noticed an  open window and two sets of tiny footprints. Is it a) was looking b) had looked?

Finn   
It’s a) was looking.

Catherine    
That’s right. Number three. When Inspector Jones looked up, he [sfx ding] who had stolen the ring. Is it a) was seeing or b) saw?

Finn   
And this one is b) saw. And I think I know who the thieves were – it must be that cat and monkey who have got into this story now!

Catherine    
Really! Well done, Finn Sherlock. And well done to you if you got those right. And check out our website at bbclearningenglish.com for more information about on tenses. Join us again for more 6 Minute Grammar.

Both  
Bye.

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End of Session 2

That's the end of this session. We hope you enjoyed learning about narrative tenses - now you can tell your own stories, just like Catherine! You can practise ... in Session 3 when ... See you there!