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One thing you should NEVER forget if you want to sound entertaining in English

A lot of students don’t like using the past perfect tense, because it is complicated and they don’t know when to use it.

However, if you want to make your story sound more interesting, it is definitely something you should use.

Usually when we tell a story, we talk about events in the order that they happened.

For example:

      1. I woke up
      2. Got out of bed
      3. I cleaned my teeth
      4. I had breakfast
      5. I had a shower
      6. I got dressed

‘I woke up, I got out of bed, I cleaned my teeth, I had breakfast, I had a shower and I got dressed’

But sometimes, we want to go back in the story and talk about something that had already happened before, this is when we use the past perfect, take a look at this example.

‘I woke up and I realised that I had overslept, so I quickly got out of bed’

Here the first thing that happened is that you overslept,  if you write it in the order that it happened it sounds like this:

‘I overslept, then I woke up and I realised this, so I quickly got out of bed’.  As you can see this looks strange, and also quite boring. The reason is because it does not tell the story IN THE SAME ORDER THAT YOU EXPERIENCED IT.  If you don’t do this it can make your story sound unnatural and boring, with no humour or drama.

Here is another example, a story about going to a party:

‘I spent a long time getting ready for the party, I put on my best clothes and got ready to go.  Then I caught the bus, which was nearly one hour late, so when we finally arrived at the party everyone had already left!’

Now read this sentence told in the order that the story happened:

I spent a long time getting ready for the party, I put on my best clothes and got ready to go.  Then I caught the bus, which was nearly one hour late.  Everyone left the party and then we arrived!’

As you can see the first sentence with the past perfect tense is better because: 1. The funny bit left until the end    2. It tells the story IN THE SAME ORDER THAT YOU EXPERIENCED IT.

So it is quite important to remember to use the past perfect tense to make your stories entertaining.

If you look at the same story again in the better order you can see that this looks so much better:

‘I spent a long time getting ready for the party, I put on my best clothes and got ready to go.  Then I caught the bus, which was nearly one hour late, so when we finally arrived at the party everyone had already left!’

But just make sure that you remember to put the past perfect tense in because otherwise it completely changes the meaning, and then you get a terrible sentence like this!:

‘I spent a long time getting ready for the party, I put on my best clothes and got ready to go.  Then I caught the bus, which was nearly one hour late, so when we finally arrived at the party everyone left!’

with no past perfect tense in this sentence it sounds like everybody left the party straight after you arrived! Which sounds like they all left the party BECAUSE you arrived!

Here is another example:

‘When we arrived at the meeting it had started’ - The meeting started before you arrived

‘When we arrived at the meeting it started’The meeting started after you arrived, maybe they were waiting for you to arrive.

So, in summary there are two things you need to remember with the past perfect tense:

  1. Tell stories IN THE ORDER THAT YOU EXPERIENCED IT because it sounds strange  and boring if you don’t
  2. When you go back in the story to talk about something that had happened before, don’t forget to use the past perfect tense because it can change the meaning!

You can also use the past perfect AT THE BEGINNING of a story, to give important background information to a longer story.

For example, let’s say you want to tell somebody a story which is all about your wonderful day in the beautiful countryside, and the reason that the countryside was so beautiful was because it had snowed the night before.  It is very important that you mention the fact that it had snowed, but you also want to make it clear that this is not part of the story, this is just the background information.  To do this you can use the past perfect tense:

‘It had snowed all night. When we took a walk into the countryside the next morning all around us everything was completely white, it was so beautiful!’

For more information on telling stories in English, check out our page on narrative tenses.

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 David Cox

 Fluency Space

 Make the world your fluency space. Business English for career and life success

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