It’s the beginning of a new year!
The new year is a time for looking forward and setting goals for the year, and also for looking back and reflecting on the last year.
The Romans understood the value of the new year and even had a god that reflected these ideas. Here, let me introduce you to Janus (where we get the word “January”):
Janus has two heads — one looking back and one looking forward.
Today, I’d like to show you how to:
- tell a story in the past with colour and detail
- connect different ideas in the past together like an expert English speaker
- talk about future goals in a powerful, motivating way
- talk about goals in a way that makes them real and achievable
Telling a story in English
First, here’s Lakshmi, one week after New Year’s Eve. On the left, we can see the past, when the new year started.
What’s she doing? She’s talking to her chicken about what a fantastic time she had on New Year’s Eve.
To talk about what happened on the 31st of December, Lakshmi could simply list the things she did one by one:
“We booked a table at a restaurant on Thursday. My friends came to my house at 8 pm on the 31st. We had some food and talked. It started raining. We played cards. We left the house and we got wet. Then we went out to the restaurant.”
Now the chicken is bored. Why? What’s wrong with talking about the past like this?
It’s boring. What’s more, there are two sentences that seem out of place. Which ones?
Think about these questions:
- Why does she say, “We booked a table at a restaurant on Thursday”? Isn’t the story about New Year’s Eve, which was on Saturday?
- Why does she say, “It started raining”? Is it important?
OK. Let’s talk about the restaurant first.
As we can see, booking the restaurant table happened long before the story started. But it’s important to mention. We all know how difficult it is to get a restaurant table on New Year’s Eve.
But we don’t want to start the story with this information. How do we solve this?
We can use the past perfect.
What’s the past perfect? Click here
had + verb 3
We had eaten dinner before we left the house.
When the film started, I realised I’d seen it before.
The past perfect is like having a magic lasso.
Because Lakshmi is telling the story of New Year’s Eve, she’s “trapped” in the time of the story. She can’t get out:
That’s a problem if she needs some information from outside the time of the story, right? But fortunately, she has the “past perfect lasso”:
She can then take the action from outside the story time and attach it to a part of her story.
“We went to the restaurant that we had booked on Thursday.”
“We went to a restaurant. We got a table because we’d booked it on Thursday.”
That’s what the past perfect is for. We don’t actually need to use it very often, but it’s very useful when we do need it.
OK. Now, what about the rain?
Why does she mention the rain? It’s not very important to the story, but it makes the story more interesting.
The only problem is that in the example above, because she’s using the past tense, she can only talk about the rain when it started. But at that part of the story, it’s not important. The rain is only important later, when they leave the house:
So she should talk about it then. That’s when she can use the past continuous.
What’s the past continuous? Click here
was/were + -ing
I was watching a film when you called.
As you can see from the picture, the rain is a long action and it’s continuing when they leave the house. So Lakshmi can take this long action and attach it to part of her story.
“It was raining when we left the house and we got wet.”
She can also use the past continuous with another past continuous action happening at the same time:
“While it was raining, the dogs were going crazy.”
So we can use the past perfect to get extra information from outside the story time and the past continuous to make the story more interesting and atmospheric.
Just remember, that we (almost) always use these two tenses with a part of the main story (usually past simple). They have to be “attached” to something else in the story.
Here’s Lakshmi’s story in full:
“My friends came over at 8 pm on the 31st. We had some food and talked about 2016. When we left the house, it was raining and we got wet. Then we went out to the restaurant. We got a table because I’d booked on Thursday.”
Now the chicken is more interested. When you’re telling a story, remember to keep the chicken happy!
Making Goals “Real” in English
But Lakshmi is also talking to her chicken about the future — her goals and dreams for 2017.
I talked about the different future tenses in a previous post. And when we talk about 2017, we can use those tenses.
But there are two other ways we can talk about the future, especially when we’re setting goals.
So what does Lakshmi want from 2017?
- She has a good job, but she’d like to start her own business, and soon.
- She wants the business to start making money before the end of the year.
OK. So two clear goals:
One goal is a short, simple action: start a business. She wants to do it soon, so she sets a deadline.
Now, in this situation, what do you think will be more motivating for her? The goal (starting the business) or the deadline (March 1st)?
When do you work harder? When you’re thinking about the goal, or when you’re thinking about the deadline? I don’t know about you, but deadlines are more motivating for me than goals. Goals are abstract and don’t feel real until I’ve done them. But the deadline, a date that’s definitely going to come, feels more real.
So if she’s thinking about the goal more than the deadline, she might say:
“I’ll start the business before March 1st.”
This sentence isn’t very motivating. It’s as if she’s describing something out of her own control, as if the date is something interesting, but not important.
Now, if she’s using the deadline to push her into action, then she can use the future perfect.
What’s the future perfect? Click here
will + have + verb 3
I will have finished these reports by lunchtime.
“By March 1st, I will have started the business.”
She’s imagining herself in the future, after she has reached her goal. It’s a simple change, but a powerful one.
But what about her second goal: start making money?
Sure, she can use the future perfect tense again. And it would work really well:
“By the end of the year, I will have started making money from my business.”
Great stuff! But there’s another way she can say this, a way that will really make her feel the process of making money.
If Lakshmi really wants to make that goal of making money feel as real as possible, she can use the future continuous.
What’s the future continuous? Click here
will + be + -ing
Next month, I will be working abroad.
“At the end of the year, I’ll be making money from my business.”
As you can see, this is a long action, a process in the future. When we make our goals into a process, they become more real and give us stronger motivation to achieve them.
In a previous post, I talked about how “-ing” verbs feel more like a process, and how “to” verbs are pushing to the future. The future continuous creates this process feeling. (Notice that it contains an “-ing” verb.)
|Another interesting thing about the future continuous|
Do you fly often? Do you ever listen to the pilot speaking at the beginning of the flight?
Have you noticed that the pilot doesn’t say:
We’ll fly at an altitude of 40,000 feet.
Instead, he or she says:
We’ll be flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet.
Why? That’s because when we use the future continuous, there’s a feeling of control and safety. It feels as if everything is planned and organised.
To sum up:
- We can use the past perfect to “lasso” extra information into our story.
- We can use the past continuous to add extra background information to our story (with long actions).
- We can use the future perfect to motivate ourselves when goal setting.
- We can use the future continuous to make hopes and goals more real and to motivate us.
So tell me: What did you do on New Year’s Eve? And what are your dreams and goals for 2017?
Write your story and goals in the comments. I want to hear them!