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Master Past Tense Like a Pro: Beyond "Nearly" in English (ESL Learners)

Hey ESL learners!  Have you ever struggled to describe past events in English? While "nearly" can be a helpful crutch, wouldn't it be great to have a wider vocabulary to express different timeframes more precisely?

This blog post is your guide to mastering past tense expressions in English!

Why Variety Matters

Using a variety of past tense expressions goes beyond just sounding more natural. It allows you to be more specific and paint a clearer picture when talking about past events.  Imagine telling a friend, "Nearly ten years ago, I started learning English."

This gives them a general idea, but wouldn't it be more informative to say:

  • "Around a decade ago, I embarked on my journey of learning English." (Around indicates an imprecise but closer approximation)

  • "Approximately ten years back, I decided to take the plunge and start learning English." (Approximately emphasizes an estimated figure)

Time Travel Toolbox

Here are some handy past tense expressions to talk about the past, categorized by their level of specificity:

  • General Time Frames:

  • Around:  (e.g., Around 5 years ago, I started learning English.)

  • Approximately:  (e.g., Approximately 10 years ago, we moved to a new city.)

  • About:  (e.g., About a decade ago, I graduated from university.) - These expressions indicate a general time period, not a specific date.

  • Specific Time Frames:

  • A little over/A little less than:  (e.g., A little over 3 years ago, I got my first job. / A little less than 20 years ago, my parents got married.) - These phrases are useful for times slightly exceeding or falling short of a specific amount.

  • In the early/mid/late (part of a decade):  (e.g., In the early 2000s, the internet became widely accessible. / In the mid-1990s, grunge music was very popular. / In the late 1800s, the telephone was invented.) - These phrases pinpoint a specific period within a decade.

  • Time Adverbs:

  • Recently:  (e.g., I recently traveled to Europe for the first time.) - Used for a period of time not long ago (can vary depending on context).

  • Lately:  (e.g., Lately, I've been busy with work.) - Similar to "nearly" but suggests a more continuous occurrence within a recent time frame.

  • In the past:  (e.g., In the past, people relied on letters for communication.) - This is a general phrase for any time before the present.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that you have these tools, let's test your knowledge with a quick exercise! To complete your learning process, you'll find the answer key right after the exercise.

Exercise: Time Travel Challenge!

Fill in the blank with the most appropriate time expression to complete each sentence:

  1. The printing press was invented _________ (in the early 1400s / recently / lately).

  2. I _________ (a little over a year ago / in the past / approximately) started learning a new language.

  3. We used to play outside all the time when we were kids, but _________ (lately / around a decade ago / recently) we don't seem to have as much free time.

  4. My grandparents met _________ (in the late 1950s / recently / lately) and have been married for over 60 years!

  5. _________ (In the past / A little less than 5 years ago) traveling by airplane was a much more luxurious experience.

Answer Key:

  1. in the early 1400s (This is a specific period within a decade)

  2. a little over a year ago (This indicates a specific timeframe)

  3. lately (This suggests a more continuous occurrence within a recent time frame)

  4. in the late 1950s (This is a specific period within a decade)

  5. In the past (This is a general phrase for any time before the present)


Keep Learning!

If you wish to keep learning and exploring past tense expressions in English, here are some helpful online resources:

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