How to Use Past Tense and Past Participle Correctly

How to Use Past Tense and Past Participle Correctly

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You know they say when matters of the PAST catches up with you… And in this case, the matters of ‘past tense’ and ‘past participle’!

In this month’s #allYouGottaDoIsAsk section, we will answer Aini’s question:

I learnt about past tense and past participle in school but never really understood the concept. Now that I use English for work every day, I worry that I am not using the grammar rules for past tense and past participle correctly that sometimes I second-guess myself when talking. Help!

Well Aini dearest, help is here and the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement! The first step to any form of self-improvement is to identify and acknowledge the problem. Now that we have that identified and acknowledged that we have a problem with the use of past tense and past participle, we can zoom in on ways to overcome the problem. Easy peasy.

So let’s dive in to our topic – Past Tense and Past Participle.

Let me begin by listing a few simple sentences in Past Tense and Past Participle so that you could easily identify their difference.

Past Tense:

  • Ali forgot his watch.
  • She woke up at 6 am.
  • The cat stole a fish.

Past Participle:

  • Ali has forgotten his watch.
  • She had woken up at 6 am.
  • The cat has stolen a fish.

In the samples of sentences above, you should notice that a past tense can stand alone as a verb (forgot, woke, stole) while a past participle can’t and must be supported with auxiliary verbs (has forgotten, had woken, has stolen).

While it is easy for most professional Malaysians to understand the usage of past tense, the usage of past participle is a bit tricky because our Bahasa Melayu has no equivalent comparison to past participle. But no worries, my explanation will base on the difference between past tense and past participle for the purpose of clarity.

The biggest and the easiest difference between past tense and past participle is that a past tense expresses a past incident VS a past participle expresses a past incident in a present context.

Example 1.

Ali forgot his watch VS Ali has forgotten his watch.

The examples above express that Ali accidentally left his watch. In ‘Ali has forgotten his watch’, the sentence is expressed in the present context and is of the same effect as ‘Ali forgot his watch just now’. The usage of past participle in this sentence is a matter of expressing the past incident (forgot) in a present context.

Notice that both sentences do not carry the exact same meaning. If both sentences were to be translated to Bahasa Melayu, ‘Ali has forgotten his watch’ carries the meaning that ‘Ali terlupa jamnya tadi‘ or ‘Ali terlupa pula jamnya‘ – it doesn’t simply carry the meaning ‘Ali terlupa jamnya‘ which is the translation on ‘Ali forgot his watch’ in Bahasa Melayu.

Example 2.

She woke up at 6am VS She had woken up at 6am.

Both the sentences above expresses the time she woke up. In ‘She had woken up at 6am’, the sentence is expressed in the present context in the sentence where – at 6am, she had undergone the process of waking up. The usage of past participle in this sentence is to express the past incident (woke up) in the present context.

Notice that both sentences carry almost similar meaning, but not exactly the same. If both sentences were to be translated to Bahasa Melayu, ‘She had woken up at 6am’ carries the meaning that ‘Dia sudah bangun pukul 6 pagi tadi‘ or ‘Dia telah terbangun pukul 6 pagi tadi‘ – it doesn’t simply carry the meaning ‘Dia bangun dari tidur pukul 6 pagi‘ in Bahasa Melayu.

Example 3.

The cat stole a fish VS The cat has stolen a fish.

Both the sentences above expresses an incident where a fish was taken away by a cat. In ‘The cat has stolen a fish’, the sentence is expressed in the present context in the sentence where – a cat took a fish away. The usage of the past participle in this sentence is to express the past incident (stole) in the present context.

Notice that both sentence do not carry the same meaning here. If both sentences were to be translated to Bahasa Melayu, ‘The cat has stolen a fish’ carries the meaning that ‘Kucing itu telah pun mencuri seekor ikan‘ or ‘Kucing itu sudah mencuri seekor ikan tadi‘ – it doesn’t simply carry the meaning ‘Kucing itu mencuri seekor ikan‘ in Bahasa Melayu.

Do the three examples help making the case of the ‘past’, as in past participle clearer to you? I hope it has shed some light or even better, elicit more questions from you! Because I would like to hear from you – what challenges do you face as a non-native English speaker to understand the usage of past participle? I would love and be honoured to walk you through on how easy it is to nail this 🙂

Come on, don’t be shy. You may post your question below in the Comments section or you may simply reply to me if you are a subscriber to the Baini Mustafa Weekly Email. If you would like to become a subscriber and enjoy perks, news and some goodies that I only share with my subscribers, you may register here.

Until then, communicate clearly to get what you want and to convey your knowledge effectively because the your global audience is waiting for your knowledge and ideas.

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