Hav you ever read a story that wasn’t told in the past tense? Maybe a few here and there were in the present tense, but it’s safe to assume most short stories or novels you’ve read have been told in the past tense. I was thinking about this today while reading (specifically I think a shift from past simple to past perfect simple to talk about something that happened earlier in the story triggered it).

It’s something that’s true across many languages, and we’re so used to it we don’t really notice. But if you think about it, most stories would work just as well in the present tense. And some writers do use the present tense, for certain sections of their stories at least, to provide a sense of immediacy. So why not use that for the whole story then, and for every story? Continue reading

“I’d Been Being Watched!”

Back when I was writing about ablaut reduplication, I read this article on the BBC website, which mentions this unwritten rule, and other structures that we use unconsciously. It’s interesting and worth reading, but I was struck by one passage in particular:

There are so many tenses you can use without even thinking about it, and almost certainly without being able to name them. It depends how you count them, but there are about 20 that you deploy faultlessly. The pluperfect progressive passive for an extended state of action that happened to you prior to another action in the past is, when you put it like that, rather daunting. But then you’d happily say “I realised I’d been being watched” without breaking sweat or blinking.

Eh, not quite without breaking a sweat, I think! Certainly the sentence is grammatically correct, and an example of the passive voice. The active version would be I realised someone had been watching me. We then change that to passive by changing the verb to the past-participle form (watched) and using the appropriate form of to be (had been being – past perfect continuous). But is it really that easy for even a native speaker to say this, and how often would we really use this form?

Continue reading


Yesterday, I looked at the present perfect simple tense, a tricky customer for people learning English. The progressive aspect can also of course be in the past and the future, and can be combined with the continuous (progressive) aspect. As with the present perfect simple, the perfect aspect always joins two different time periods together. The present perfect simple is the most common way you’ll use the perfect aspect, but let’s have a quick look at the other ways we use it:

Continue reading

He Had Had Good Grammar, Had he?

What does it really mean to be grammatically correct? Is it important? People often tell you that you shouldn’t get bogged down in grammar when learning a language, and should aim for real communication. And I agree about that whole communication thing, but you still need good fundamental grammar to do so. Grammar and natural use of English don’t have to be enemies. Continue reading