3 past tenses in English for telling stories

Have you ever tried telling a story to a friend and well, you start having all sorts of difficulties with the tenses? Especially the past tenses in English?

Like Romain, in today’s lesson. He mixes up all his past tenses in English:

“Hey Christina, guess what happened yesterday? I drove my tram and I see Patrick! He went to get a pizza for dinner because he forgets to go to buy groceries on his way home from work earlier.”

Does this sound like you when you’re telling a story in English?

You’ve been speaking English for 10 years, but you’re still confused with the past tenses in English. Don’t worry, today you’ll learn how to tell stories with the correct tenses in English. Let’s go!


The hard part about telling stories, is that you mix up all the tenses.  English, there are 3 past tenses we use very often to tell stories:

Past simple: I did, I went, I ate, etc.
Past continuous: I was doing, I was going, I was eating
Past Perfect Simple: I had done, I had gone, and I had eaten.

To use these tenses, you’ll need to be a conjugation ninja!

It helps if you know how to conjugate the verbs. I like this table of tenses in English, from Englisch-hilfen.de. It’s very complete, so print it and put it on your fridge!

Problems with grammar tenses - WTF promo button


You already know that for the past simple, there are regular verbs and irregular verbs.
If the verb is regular, it’s easy, you just add -ed to the verb: lived, tried, visited, waited,  watched, finished. Just the pronunciation changes, and if you want, I can make a lesson on how to pronounce -ed in regular verbs. Just let me know in the comments.
If the verb is irregular, you just have to learn the past simple conjugation.You have a lesson dedicated to the 8 most common irregular verbs in English here.

So the structure of the past simple is pretty simple, you just have to learn the irregular verbs.

And remember, you use past simple verbs when the action is finished. Last week, yesterday, etc.

Watch the lesson to find out! Watch the video lesson for some examples, used in a conversation between Romain and me.

In stories, we often combine the past simple with the past continuous.


For the past continuous, you’ll use “was” or “were”,plus the verb + -ing : I was driving, you were saying, he or she was going, we were thinking about, they were wondering.

Those are a few verbs we often use in the past continuous. Of course, your choice of “was” or “were” depends on the subject of your sentence. I was, you were, etc.

You can play a game and test yourself on the past continuous in the video lesson!

Which action was longer, like a background action?
Which past action was a shorter?

Past tenses image


For the past perfect simple, you’ll use “had” No conjugation it’s always “had” Yay! So “had”, plus the past participle. That’s the 3rd column on the list of irregular verbs. You have a conjugation challenge!

Let’s see some examples:
My computer crashed and I realized I’d forgotten to save everything.
I got to work and I realized I’d left my lunch at home.
And then, the fire alarm went off! Fortunately, we had finished the job interview.

We use the past perfect tense to describe an action that was more in the past than other past actions in our story.

Let’s take one of those examples:
I got to work and I realized I’d left my lunch at home. So I went out for lunch!
“I got to work”: let’s say that was at 9am.
“I realized”:  Probably just after, so 9:01 am.
“I’d left my lunch at home.”:  That was before, maybe at 8:30, when I left home.

So “I’d left” is more in the past than “I got to work” and “I realized”. That’s why it’s in the past perfect simple.


Have you ever had difficulties using these tenses to tell stories?
Do you have a secret to share about how you remember which tense to use?

Tell us in the comments because we can all learn from your stories and your tips!

And don’t forget to get your copy of “What the Faute?” Here’s the link again.


More English lessons...

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vocabulaire anglais aéroport
verbes irréguliers anglais


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