Describing the past in IELTS

When we want to describe things which happened at an earlier time, we can use the ADVERB ‘in the past’ or the NOUN ‘the past’. However, there are a few more complex options:


a) IN THE RECENT PAST

This phrase can be used with a SIMPLE PAST or USED TO to describe a situation which has changed quite recently or something which happened not long ago. Because it includes the word ‘recent’, some people use this phrase with a PERFECT tense, but because this phrase refers to a past time/moment, I wouldn’t recommend using it with PERFECT verb forms.

EXAMPLES:


1. In the recent past, attitudes towards religion were very different in my country.

2. In the recent past, compulsory military service was abolished.

3. It tends to shock young people to hear that in the relatively recent past smartphones did not exist.


b) IN THE NOT TOO DISTANT PAST

This phrase can also be used with a SIMPLE PAST or USED TO to describe a situation which has changed quite recently. In most cases, it has a very similar meaning to ‘in the recent past’. I would recommend not using it with a PERFECT verb form.

EXAMPLES:


1. In the not too distant past, people tended to communicate through letters and phone calls.

2. In the not too distant past, most people in this country used to work a regular eight-hour day.

3. Although our parents were brought up in the not too distant past, their experiences of life are entirely different from ours.


c) IN THE DISTANT PAST

This phrase can be used with a SIMPLE PAST or USED TO to describe a situation which is different from the way it was a long time ago.

EXAMPLES:


1. In the distant past, most individuals rarely travelled outside their own community.

2. In the distant past, even educated scholars used to believe the world to be the centre of the universe.

3. Although attitudes in the distant past may have been radically different from the ones many of us hold today, that does not necessarily mean they were wrong.

d) IN THE DIM AND DISTANT PAST


This phrase can be used with a SIMPLE PAST or USED TO to describe a situation which is different from the way it was a long time ago. ‘The dim and distant past’ is a time which we do not understand very well because it was such a long time ago.

EXAMPLES:


1. In the dim and distant past, before the development of modern societies, people probably lived in small family groups as hunter-gatherers.

2. In the dim and distant past, only the elite in society had the opportunity to study.


COMPLEXITY:


We can also use these phrases with CONDITIONAL structures to describe things which did not happen in the past and the results of those things, which could not happen.

EXAMPLES:


1. Even in the recent past, parents would have been shocked if their adolescent children had stayed out until the early hours of the morning. These days mothers and fathers in many cultures seem to find this acceptable.

2. In the not too distant past, the idea that we would all be walking around with smartphones would have seemed preposterous.

3. If, in the distant past, humans had understood the causes of life-threatening diseases, many lives could have been saved.


USING THESE PHRASES AS NOUNS:


We can use 'The recent past' or 'The not too distant past' without 'in' (as a NOUN PHRASE). 'The recent past' can be used with a PERFECT verb form but ‘the not too distant past’ is usually used with a SIMPLE PAST form.


EXAMPLES:


1. The recent past has witnessed/seen an exponential increase in the number of automobile users.

2. The not too distant past witnessed/saw so much horror and destruction.




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