The Use of Time Markers in English Part I: Past Simple vs Perfect Forms

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Time markers. They are like road signs- when you see one, you have to treat it accordingly. That means if you are on the road, approaching an intersection, and you come across this sign:

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By Roulex_45 (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons

That means you should give way (or yield) to cross traffic as it has the right of way. Other road sign examples can be used as an analogy to the topic that is rather mind-boggling in the English language. Time markers are used as indicators for determining which verb tenses should be used in a sentence. Aside the fact that all forms of time, such as a day or time, are included under the definition of time markers, other grammar forms considered to be used as time markers include certain words, like ago, when, already, ever and never. They also include most of the prepositional and adverbial phrases as well as words and phrases used for sequential order, like at first, secondly and finally.  For each verb tense there is a set of time markers that helps the language learner determine what form to use.

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Our first set of time markers looks at the difference between Past Simple and Perfect form. As a quick review, Past Simple refers to an event that occurred (or simply stated, started and ended) in the past. Example sentences include:

Wilhelm Bartlemann invented the Strandkorb in 1882. (Active)

The Strandkorb was invented by Wilhelm Bartlemann in 1882.  (Passive)

The verb is invent and as it’s a regular verb, an -ed is added.

Another example with an irregular verb can be seen here:

The origin of this invention was found in the Netherlands as well as in Hanseatic cities, like Bremen, Hamburg and Luebeck. (Passive)

The verb is find and its past form is found.  Have you got your irregular verb lists out yet? You better, because more examples will be found below. 🙂

The time markers for Past Simple focuses on an exact time the event takes place. This means anything that has to do with ago, last (…), during (a specific period), adverbial forms dealing with a sudden event, sequential orders and finally, prepositions of time (at, in, and on) belong to the group where time markers are used to describe what happened in the past. Here’s a complete list to keep in mind:

Time Markers for Past Simple:

ago, last (night, week, month, year, decade, century & millenium), yesterday, at, in, on, for, during, suddenly, (un-)expectedly, from (a) to (b), in the course of (…), when (used as a subordinate clause), sequential order (first, second, lastly, finally, etc.- also after), other adverbial phrases (surprisingly, quickly, slowly, etc.)

Activity 1:  Identify the time markers in the following sentences below:

  1. When Elfriede von Maltzahn asked Bartlemann  to provide a beach chair for her in 1882, he came up with the idea with the Strandkorb.
  2. In the course of only a year, the first Strandkörbe were presented for rent at the beach in Warnemünde.
  3. From 1882 until the turn of the century, Strandkörbe appeared in many towns along the Baltic Sea coast as well as in the Lakes Region of Mecklenburg-Pommerania.
  4. At the same time, Johann Falck and Franz Schaft opened their own Strandkorb factories in Rostock and Kroepelin, respectively. Falck invented the Halblieger in 1897.
  5. During the Interwar period, the number of Strandkörbe and factories increased by ten fold.

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Perfect form is not in reference to young German ladies in bikinis stroming along the Baltic Sea coast (;-) ), but consists of two types: present perfect and  past perfect. The present perfect form has two functions: 1. It serves as an event that started in the past and continues into the present, and 2. It describes an event that occurred suddenly and at an unknown time in the past.  Examples include:

  1. Four factories in Germany have produced Strandkörbe since the end of World War II.

Here, we have the verb produce, which in present perfect form, means that the four companies (Eggers, Schardt, Harder and Korbwerk) are still producing Strandkörbe despite having an average age of 60+ years in the business. Korbwerk consisted of two factories from the East German era which consolidated in 1992.

 2. Look, Mom! Danny has just rented us a Strandkorb! 🙂

Here, we have the verb rent and in this context, refers to Danny having provided a Strandkorb. Yet it is unknown when, using the time marker just makes it appear that he bought it just now.

In the past perfect tense, we describe the event that occurred prior to the event occurring in the past. Basically, it means  schema A that happened before schema B- all in the past. Example:

  1. Before Bartlemann’s invention of the modern Strandkorb, weaved basket chairs with covers had been popular among the royal families in several German duchies.

Here, we refer to the popularity of basket weave chairs prior to Bartlemann’s breakthrough of the Strandkorb in 1882, using the past participle form of to be and the adjective, popular.

Time markers for perfect form consists of mainly prepositional phrases, as well as never, ever, past and last. With the exception of prior to, until and during (which are mainly used for past perfect), the following time markers can be used for both forms (unless marked with a star, which means it’s usage is strictly for present perfect):

for, already, just, yet*, before*, recently*, in the past/last (….)*, at last, never, ever, since*, then*, finally, in the end*, now*, at the moment,* currently*, always, traditionally, occasionally, usually, now*.

Activity 2:  Identify the time marker in the following sentences below and determine whether they are present or past perfect form.

  1. Prior to the invention of the Strandkorb, Bartlemann’s wife, Elisabeth had commissioned a person to improve the quality of the weaved basket chair in 1880.
  2. The oldest existing Strandkorb factory, Korbwerk, has produced Strandkörbe since the days of Karl Martin Harder in the 1920s.
  3. The Strandkorb has already become one of the key signatures of vacationing along Germany’s sea coasts and lakes.
  4. Three East German Strandkorb factories had produced their own products for 35 years until the consolidation in 1992.
  5. Carl Eggers, who had contributed to producing Strandkörbe during the Cold War, has had his family furniture business since the 1770s. (!: Two pairs of answers)

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Activity 3:  Using the time markers and the verbs in brackets, complete the following sentences using the correct verb tense (past simple, present perfect or past perfect). As this is a story, the context must be kept in mind.

  1. Three years ago, Patrick and Sandy __________ (travel) to Travemünde for vacation.
  2. They _____________ never (see) Schleswig-Holstein before.
  3. Sandy, who is an English teacher having come from Louisiana (near Baton Rouge), ___________ (live) in Germany for seven years, but ___________ (visit) never the Baltic Sea prior to the trip.
  4. Patrick ____________ (work) as a marketing manager at a computer company in Mannheim for 10 years.
  5. Patrick’s father ___________(own) a Strandkorb rental business in Eckernförde from 1960 until his death in 2003.
  6. Neither of them ___________ (rent) a Strandkorb before but they _________(plan) to do so on this trip.
  7. Patrick and Sandy __________(meet) each other when he was 23 and she was 19.
  8. They ________ (to be) in Bavaria at that time.
  9. When they __________ (arrive) at the beach, they first __________ (pay) for a Matjes sandwich, Flensburger beer and French Fries each. Then, they ________(rent) a Strandkorb located towards the water.
  10. As they were walking with their food toward their Strandkorb, a flock of seagulls _________ (line) up along the edge of the roof of a hamburger stand and at the right moment, _________(attack) them!

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Activity 4: Finish the Story  With a partner, prepare the second half of the story and decide for yourselves what happens to Patrick and Sandy. How do they deal with the sea gulls? Will they make it to the Strandkorb? Will they enjoy their trip to Travemünde?  For each verb tense, you much supply three sentences along with time markers for each one. More is better. Personal experiences with Strandkorb and seagulls are more than welcome. Make your story geniune for others to listen to. Good luck! 🙂

ALTERNATIVE/ FURTHER PRACTICE: In case you don’t want to do Activity 4 above or if you wish to work more on past tenses, please click here for some extra exercises that will help you better understand the mechanics of the tenses and even go wilder on the story involving Patrick, Sandy and their encounter with the seagulls. Enjoy! 🙂

fast fact logo: With the exception of the story in activity 3, everything in this exercise dealing with time markers for past simple and perfect form are based on a true story of how the Strandkorb was invented and has evolved as a signature for vacationing on German beaches. For more information on the history, click on this picture below, which will take you to all the facts you need to know. While the site is in English, you can switch to German or Danish as you wish. By the way, there is no direct translation for this except for beach chair, but it is in reference to a different type of chair. Hence the adoption of this unique German word. 🙂

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Minus the Yield sign, all photos were taken by the author in August 2016, while on vacation in Fehmarn.

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3 thoughts on “The Use of Time Markers in English Part I: Past Simple vs Perfect Forms

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