How To Speak About Past Events During English Conversations

by Robby on November 10, 2010

“Don’t focus on studying English grammar – go for spoken English instead!” – this is one of the few phrases you can read on my blog nearly every time I publish something. Reasoning behind this statement is that if you learn to speak correctly, you’ll also learn English grammar along the way.

You see – grammar is set of rules binding the words together and determining their place in a sentence. The more you learn English in a natural way, the more you’ll start developing the special “feel” for correct English grammar and you’ll instinctively know how a particular thing has to be said.

Real life conversations can sometimes go against standard English grammar rules, and it’s important for you as a foreign English speaker to be aware of such exemptions :!:

Not that you’re required to stuff your spoken English with slang phrases and pose as a native speaker! It’s just useful to know that sometimes you can ignore one or another grammar rule to make your speech easier and friendlier!

In this video I’m discussing how native English speakers speak about past events during a conversation, and the respective choice of English Grammar Tenses. It can be quite confusing for a foreign English speaker to get the tenses right – especially when we start looking at the Perfect Tenses and such. So watch this video to see how you can make your life easier and also make your English speech sound more native! ;-)

And of course, if the video playback is hampered for some reason – have a read of the video script below!

During our daily conversations, especially if they’re informal, we use the Past Tense a lot, and that’s where foreign English speakers may start struggling with expressing themselves clearly and fast enough so that the story doesn’t lose its relevance and appeal.

Let’s say, you’re at work and you meet a co-worker of yours. You want to tell her about an argument that broke out between two other employees, so you’re saying the following: “… and then Jamie threw the fact at her that she had left the mug on her desk the day the before as well and that she never wants to see it happen again! Donna went all red and I thought she was going to explode!”

Let’s look at this passage and analyze it a bit from the grammar standpoint and also from conversational English point of view.

So you’re telling about an event that took place in the past, and you’re using the Simple Past Tense when starting off – “Jamie threw the fact at her…”. The next event, however, took place even before Jamie had the conversation with Donna, so you can’t use the Simple Past anymore. If you follow proper English grammar rules, you have to use Past Perfect instead, so you carry on with “…that she had left the mug on her desk.”

But now listen to what this very sentence would most likely sound like if spoken by a native English speaker: “… and then Jamie’s throwing the fact at her that she left the mug on her desk.”

Using Present Tenses When Speaking About Past?!?

Are you slightly confused over the Present Continuous Tense in this sentence “… and then Jamie’s throwing the fact at her”? Are you wondering – “… hold on, why would a native English speaker go for Present Continuous when telling about Past events? Do you want to tell me, Robby, that native English speakers don’t use Past Tense in conversations?”

OK, let me dispel your confusion and let’s clarify the things! ;-)

Native English speakers do use Simple Past and Past Perfect Tenses, of course they do! However, our topic today is about telling about a past event during a conversation and that would involve a bit lengthier story than just a few sentences. For instance, if you’re telling about what happened during your birthday party on Saturday night, you might be speaking for two, three or five minutes before you’ve revealed every interesting detail!

So while correct and proper English grammar would demand you to use the corresponding Past Tenses, native English speakers often use Simple and Simple Progressive Tenses to tell the story :!:

The reason for doing that is because it’s slightly easier to get the speech going if you can substitute Past Perfect for Simple Past, and you can speak a bit faster and in a natural manner. If native English speakers do it all the time, why would you want to sound like reading from a book? If you want to become conversationally fluent, you need to adopt natural English speaking habits, and this happens to be one of them!

And if you look at it from a story telling perspective, it does actually make sense! By using the Present Tenses you get your listener more emotionally involved in the story, and it heightens the whole conversation experience.

I’m going to give you another example now and you’ll be able to compare the two different types of speech! So here’s the first way of talking to your friend Mike whom you meet on a street when walking to the nearest shop to do some grocery shopping. I’ll be using proper, standard English grammar and I’ll go for Past Tenses because I’ll be telling a story about past events.

“Oh, hello Mike, how’s things, how you’re doing! Remember we met last Friday and I told you I was gonna go out the next day to a birthday party of a friend of mine where Michelle was also invited? So I arrived and I saw her chatting in the corner with someone.

I put on this careless look and walked down to her and said “Hello!” pretending I had no idea she had been saying all those terrible things behind my back!”

And now you’ll hear the second part of the conversation changed to Present Tense.

“So I’m arriving and I’m seeing her chatting in the corner with someone. I’m putting on the careless look and walking down to her and then I say “Hello!” pretending I have no idea she’s been saying all those terrible things behind my back!”

Did you feel the difference? While in the first version I was telling everything in quite a normal way, the second way of saying the whole thing did make it sound a bit more exiting, didn’t it? ;-)

I was using the Present Tense, and as the very name suggests it makes it sound as if it’s going on in present time, right now, at this moment! And make no mistake though, I’m not saying you have to start messing up your speech by randomly swapping tenses and think that you’re going to sound more natural by doing that. Especially if you’re having slight issues sometimes with getting your English speech right, you have to speak correctly, no doubt about it!

What I’m saying is, that when you tell a lengthy story about something that happened a short time ago, you CAN use Present and Present Continuous Tenses to make your chat partner more involved and at the same time it will be a bit easier for you to speak as Present Tenses are easier to use when speaking :!:

You don’t have to worry about the past forms of irregular verbs and stuff like that, but it’s actually not the main argument in favour of this type of speech during real-life English conversations.

The main reason why you’d want to do it is to sound more natural, easy-going, and make your story more exciting! :-)

Interchanging Tenses In The Same Conversation?…

And by the way, you don’t have to worry about mixing both – Past and Present Tenses when telling about the same event in English. People do it all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with it! So listen to another sample speech and pay attention to how I’m interchanging Past and Present Tenses to emphasize the main points!

Imagine that a cell phone conversation had interrupted your chat with a neighbor and you’re resuming it by saying: “Sorry Mary, where was I? Ah, yes, I was telling you how we went down to the mall last Saturday and then the tyre just went off in a middle of highway!

All I felt was a sudden jerk (Past Tense getting changed to Present Tense NOW) and the next thing I know is Jeff cursing at the top of his voice, and I’m thinking – what on Earth is going on now? (Switching back to Past Tense) The next moment I realized of course that it’s the car tyre that burst, and luckily enough we pulled over and got the tyre changed in no time.”

Did you notice how I changed over to the Present Tense in the middle of the story? Did you notice that it helped me to express the action and the emotions that were going on at the moment of the accident? I was telling about my experience as if I’m going though it once more at this very moment and it’s a very powerful technique!

So start using the same speech technique when speaking in English and you’ll notice that it’s much easier to speak that way. Don’t hesitate to speak in the Present Tense when telling a story about past events and I bet you’ll feel more confident while speaking! :grin:

Robby

P.S. Want to improve quality of your English conversations? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

 

English Harmony System

  • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

    You’re welcome! ;-)

  • Y Basar76

    Hi Robby,n I really got shocked.You answered one of my questions.This summer I had a chance to speak to many tourists and I really wondered why they dont prefer using perfect tenses,relative clauses or passive voices.I got the idea now.n THANK YOU!

  • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

    Thanks Tamara,nnAnyone can speak English at the level I do u2013 and I have to tell you mine isnu2019t something extraordinary.nnThe key factor is speech practising and if youu2019ve enough active English vocabulary you can get there pretty quickly!

  • Tamara

    Robby,rnI wish I spoke English as you do….rnThank you for all advices.rnYou are doing a great job.rnTamara

Previous post:

Next post: