Why do learners of English struggle so much with the ‘past tense’?

New English word? Translate any word using double click.

This is a genuine question. Baffles me all the time. Is it because people can’t believe it is so easy? Is it interference from their native languages? A mix of still to be found reasons?

You hear sentences like:

Last week I have been on holiday.

Yesterday I had been to the movies.

Last year we did go to Spain.

We didn’t went to XYZ.

In all examples, the simple past tense form would have been the correct one to use. I need to find out the reasons for these mistakes (that were all committed by fairly advanced, mostly German, non-native speakers of English) and find out how to fix them.

Less advanced learners sometimes use the ‘simple present’ instead of the past tense. Advanced learners don’t do that. But nevertheless, learning the two simple forms and how to use them, also in negations and questions, should be the first phase in the quest to master English verb grammar.

Maybe teachers, schools, we all, rush through the two simple forms too quickly, believing we should spend more time with the others as they seem to be more complex and thus more complicated. I honestly don’t know.

I constructed the Verb Structure Circle to demonstrate the basic regularity of the English verb structure system, and how it works as a combinatorial system of building blocks. I also explain the different structures’ basic semantics. I strongly recommend reading through my page to get an idea or overview of the basic principles of the system.

Nevertheless, more measures need to be taken. More awareness raising and more practical measures to help understand how, where and when to use continuous and perfect forms. Because whenever you tell someone about something in the past, especially with a lexical past time reference like yesterday, last week etc., there is only one form necessary and correct: the simple past.There is no need for anything else: no past perfect, certainly no present perfect, and none of the auxiliaries we use when we express emphasis, questions and negations. So a better understanding of the semantics of the perfect and continuous forms might help (?).

Let’s start with the examples above…

German learners/speakers’ most common wrong choice of verb structure relates to the first example: using the ‘present perfect’ when ‘simple past’ should be the preferred choice.


In the meantime, I have talked to groups about this phenomenon and the example mistakes above and it seems I do need to intensify my efforts to bring the systematicity of the English verb system to my students.

It turned out, in one group, that they really felt uncomfortable using the simple past. I had always thought using the present perfect for past time reference was due to interference from the German ‘Perfekt’ form. It seems that is only half the story.

As I describe in my post on present perfect versus simple past, German does not have share the same distinction between the two forms with English. In German, we use both forms for expressing past time reference, the distinction being one is used in speaking, the other in writing – almost exclusively so. There are a few verbs in German, where the simple past form is also preferred in speaking. We would say for instance “Gestern konnte ich nicht kommen” (I couldn’t come yesterday). A perfect form would even be awkward to construct: “Gestern habe ich nicht kommen gekonnt.” No German would say that. Also with SEIN (BE) the simple past would be preferred: “Wir waren gestern im Kino” (we were at the movies/cinema yesterday), although you could also here: “Gestern sind wir im Kino gewesen.”

But besides these examples, using verbs in the simple past form (preterite) would sound awkward, even snobbish. “Gestern waren wir beim Italiener und aßen Pizza. Wir tranken einen Rotwein und bestellten später auch Nachtisch.” If you spoke like that, … well, don’t.

The aversion felt in German seems by some to be transferred to English. I could observe the discomfort in my group, when I ‘forced’ the users of ‘present perfect’ for ‘simple past’ to use the latter. I had never considered that.

So I will have to help them overcome these feelings and get used to using the simple past. This will most likely not be that easy….

One exercise that might help could be to consciously look at a text, any text, and explore the structures used. Look at the exerpt below from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My immediate thought, though, is that a text, especially a literary one, will not help. Because it is written and would be written in a very similar way in German. Our problem is using the simple past in speaking. The exerpt might still be useful, though, for examples of ‘past perfect’ and ‘used to’ for habits in the past are used. (So I might put the exerpt in a different post.)

The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means – it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye. The only person for whom the house was in any way special was Arthur Dent, and that was only because it happened to be the one he lived in. He had lived in it for about three years, ever since he had moved out of London because it made him nervous and irritable. He was about thirty as well, tall, dark haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio, which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too – most of his friends worked in advertising.

On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent’s house for what was to be that last time. It hadn’t properly registered yet with Arthur that the council wanted to knock it down and build a bypass instead. At eight o’clock on Thursday morning Arthur didn’t feel very good. He woke up blearily, got up, wandered blearily round his room, opened a window, saw a bulldozer, found his slippers, and stomped off to the bathroom to wash. Toothpaste on the brush – so. Scrub. Shaving mirror – pointing at the ceiling. He adjusted it. For a moment it reflected a second bulldozer through the bathroom window. Properly adjusted, it reflected Arthur Dent’s bristles. He shaved them off, washed, dried, and stomped off to the kitchen to find something pleasant to put in his mouth. Kettle, plug, fridge, milk, coffee. Yawn. The word bulldozer wandered through his mind for a moment in search of something to connect with. The bulldozer outside the kitchen window was quite a big one. He stared at it. ‘Yellow,’ he thought and stomped off back to his bedroom to get dressed. Passing the bathroom he stopped to drink a large glass of water, and another. He began to suspect that he was hung over. Why was he hung over? Had he been drinking the night before? He supposed that he must have been. He caught a glint in the shaving mirror. ‘Yellow,’ he thought and stomped on to the bedroom.

Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: 42nd Anniversary Edition (S.3-4). Pan Macmillan. Kindle-Version.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.