By Rob Lane

In a previous article, we looked at the narrative tenses: past simple, past continuous, and past perfect. Although these tenses are not very difficult in theory, in practice, learners have difficulty using them fluently in conversation. In this article, we will look at how these tenses are typically combined using linking words to form more complex sentences. Before reading this article, I recommend that you read the article entitled The Past – Which Tense.

To review, past simple is the default past tenses, which means that if you are not sure which tense to use, you should use that. Past continuous and past perfect are supporting tenses. Use past continuous to build context or if you have two acts of different duration happening at the same time. Past perfect is used to explain why or how something was or happened. Knowing how to combine these tenses will help you to be more fluent.

Mary was travelling to the airport by bus. She was quite stressed because she had left home rather late. While she was travelling on the bus, she saw an accident. A car had crashed into a tree and the emergency services were helping the injured driver.

Past Tense Combinations

Past simple. Then/ Afterwards/ After that/ Next, past simple.

Mary bought a ticket. Then, she went to the airport.

After past simple/ past perfect*, past simple.

After Mary bought/ had bought her ticket, she went to the airport.

Having + past participle, past simple.

Having bought her ticket, Mary went to the airport.

After + verb-ing, past simple.

After buying her ticket, Mary went to the airport.

Past simple/ past perfect* before past simple.

Mary bought/ had bought her ticket before she went to the airport.

Past simple. Beforehand/ Before that, past perfect.

Mary went to the airport. Before that, she had bought her ticket.

Before past simple, past perfect.

Before she went to the airport, Mary had bought her ticket.

Before + verb-ing, past perfect.

Before going to the airport, Mary had bought her ticket.

Past Simple so past simple.

Mary wanted a vacation so she booked a flight.

Past simple because past simple/ past perfect.

Mary booked a ticket because she wanted/ had wanted a vacation.

While/ When past continuous, past simple.

While she was travelling to the airport, Mary saw an accident on the road.

When past simple, past continuous.

When Mary arrived at the airport, her friends were waiting for her.

*Note: where both are possible, there is no difference in meaning.


You Should

Write a number of short stories using the combinations above and give them to your teacher to check. If you have used any of them incorrectly, your teacher will be able to give you specific feedback.