A FEW days ago, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Justine Aragones, suggested that I write a column on the past imperfect tense. Hardly anybody has asked me about this tense over the past 14 years, likely because the unremarkable nature of its construction makes it seldom noticed or taught these days. I did write a column about it way back in 2004 and the piece subsequently formed part of my book Give Your English a Winning Edge, but that was all. So then, for the benefit of readers who’d like to get acquainted with this little-heralded tense, I’ll now do a quick review to differentiate it from the more familiar English tenses.
Unlike the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian among them), English doesn’t have a well-developed past imperfect tense. Indeed, it doesn’t inflect verbs at all for this tense in much the same way that it doesn’t for the future tense. What English does to denote the past imperfect—the sense of continuous, incomplete, or coincident actions in the past—is to combine the past progressive form of the main verb with the past tense forms of the verb “be.”
To better understand how the imperfect tense works, let’s formally distinguish between the “imperfect” and “perfect” in grammar. As we know, verbs typically inflect to indicate the time element and the so-called aspect of the action, which indicates whether it’s continuous, complete or incomplete, in progress, or habitual. Verbs in the Romance languages inflect to denote most of these aspects, but English does for only two —the perfect, for a past action that was completed or “perfected,” as in “He worked with us,” and the imperfect, for a past action that was still in progress or uncompleted, as in “He was working with us.”
We then can see that the imperfect aspect of English verbs is grammatically formed in the same way as their past progressive form, which combines the past tense of “be” with the main verb’s “-ing” or present participle form, as in “was working.” This basic form of the English imperfect, called the continuous participle, works to describe an action or event that was in progress in the past. Then, to establish the past imperfect aspect, the sentence typically requires another past action or condition to provide a time frame for it.
For example, the statement “We were working on an urgent project” would be meaningful only in the context of being an answer to a previously asked question like, say, “What were you doing when the fire broke out past midnight?” This question and the answer can then be expressed by this past imperfect sentence, “We were working on an urgent project when the fire broke out.”
To compensate for its inability to inflect verbs for the past imperfect, English also takes recourse to these three special forms to evoke it:
“Used” + the verb’s infinitive form: This expresses repeated, regular, or habitual actions or situations in the past: “He used to drive to Tagaytay at a moment’s fancy when he was single.” “Images of Disneyland used to obsess the girl in her teens.” “The Middle East oil producer used to host lavish parties until the price of crude dropped to below $30 a barrel.”
“Would” + the verb’s basic form (the verb stem: “They would party all night during school vacations.” “Every day the beleaguered candidate would wait for a sign in the sky that her disqualification ordeal would soon be over.”
The verb’s simple past tense + an adverb of frequency. “They were always at odds in their younger days.” “He often screamed each time his wife sang off key.” “The father rarely complained whenever his daughter made exorbitant purchases.”
I trust that this has adequately introduced the past imperfect for the general reader.
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