I understand the use of the ています form in the present tense to describe a continuous action, but am still not clear as to it's usage in the past tense (ていた form). I'm fine with it's use to describe habitual action (e.g. 大学のころビールをよく飲んでた) but am a little unclear in what circumstances it should be used to describe continuous actions. For example, if I wanted to say to a friend "we talked/ate a lot yesterday, right?" which would be correct:
昨日よく話してたなぁ 昨日よく食べてたなぁ or 昨日よく話したなぁ 昨日よくたべたなぁ
In the present tense this would be よく話している (we are in the state of talking a lot). However, When talking in the past tense, I have tended to err towards 話した as in English, but have heard the past tense form of the ている form more and more, so it seems a direct parallel can't be drawn between the English gerund and ている in this case. What would be the difference between the two phrases above?
Another example might be:
文法の本を読んだよ or: 文法の本を読んでたよ
Which would more translate to "I read the book", and how/when would the alternative be used?
Related to this is the use of ている in consecutive actions, e.g. what is the difference between these two phrases:
Are there any general remarks that can be made about the use of plan た versus ていた forms of verbs in the past tense?
Your question is very long but I think I have a short answer that works. (just kidding)
The past tense of TEIMASU is TEIMASHITA and the informal / plain version is TEITA.
Here are all of your examples (in romaji for readability among different levels).
Example Set 1: A. Kinou yoku hanashiteta na. B. Kinou yoku tabeteta na. C. Kinou yoku hanashita na. D. Kinou yoku tabeta na.
In the above examples C and D are best since you are saying, "We ate quite a lot" and "We talked quite a lot".
To me the TETA versions sound like a fond memory of a long time ago. I would also use the TA form for the immediate past.
Ex: MUKASHI YOKU TABETETA YO! I used to eat it often a long time ago.
Example Set 2: A. Bunpou no hon o yonda yo. I read the grammar book.
B. Bunpou no hon o yondeta yo. I was reading the grammar book.
This set is easy because the translations are straight forward. One says "I read" and the other says "I was reading".
The complication with the first set of examples above is the word YOKU adds nuance. Without YOKU then those sentences also are easy because they become "Yesterday we were talking" and "Yesterday we talked" which both mean essentially the same thing.
Example Set 3: A. Bunpou no hon o yondete kaerimashita. B. Bunpou no hon o yonde kaerimashita.
B is the best choice here because you are saying "I read the grammar book and returned home". Grammatically B is perfect. Example A doesn't work because YONDETE is ongoing present tense and KAERIMASHITA is past. Mixing the tenses doesn't work like that. YONDE in example B is neutral so the following verb could be any tense.
Ex. 1. Bunpou no hon o yonde kaerimasu. I will read the grammar book and then go home.
2. Bunpou no hon o yonde kaeritai. I want to read the grammar book and go home.
Notice that YONDE takes on the tense of the verb that follows it. This can't happen if you are forcing a tense in the first connector sentence.
Here are cases in which YONDETE would work.
Ex. 1. Hon o yondete tomodachi ga kita. I was reading a book and all of a sudden my friend came.
2. Hon o yondete onaga ga sukimashita. I was reading a book and got hungry.
Notice that the connecting action occurs WHILE reading the book. But you can't return home while reading a book which is why HON O YONDETE KAERIMASHITA.
Example Set 4: A. Yoku kangaetete, ni do to ikanai to kimeta. B. Yoku kangaete, ni do to ikanai to kimeta.
Example B means, "I thought about it well and decided to never go again". Example B is perfect grammar wise.
Example A means "I was thinking about it well and decided to never go again" which on the surface sound okay but how can you make a decision to not go when you are still thinking about it? That is where the grammar falls apart.
Now for the disclaimer. Japanese, just like English allows for a lot of "mistakes" and "style" changes. Japanese people don't always speak perfect grammar.
I have been speaking Japanese for almost 20 years now and teaching it for over 10 but some of your examples, especially the last one, made me really have to think hard about why KANGAETETE doesn't work so well.
In the end though, I hope this has helped your understanding a bit.
Thanks for the very comprehensive reply, and sorry for the long-winded question! You've certainly helped to clear things up a little. I think what confused me is that I've often heard Japanese say things like:
HON WO YONDETA (YO) JYUGYOU NI ITTETA (YO)
To mean "I read the book" and "I went to class" as phrases on their own when referring to events in the recent past/I've just asked them about - infact, maybe I'm missing something, but I've possibly heard this more than HON WO YONDA etc. ... from a grammar point of view, as you say this doesn't seem to make much sense, but I guess I'll put this down to idiomatic usage.
Well as for HON O YONDA (I read a book) that actually makes sense. When Japanese say JUGYOU NI ITTETA they mean "I was in class". This is common. I am not sure if it is grammatically sound since it means literally "I was going to class".
Also there is JUGYOU NI ITA (I was in class) and JUGYOU NI ITETA (I was in class). Both of these use the existence verb 居る instead of 行く.
Next time you hear someone say JUGYOU NI ITTETA ask them if they meant 行ってた or 居てた. I bet they will have to think about it.
Some thoughts... I've given this some more thought, and think I'm beginning to understand the nuance of ~TEITA versus plain ~TA a little better. Of course, as you say, grammar usage is generally very loose in real life, so there is a danger of over-theorizing - but the below was useful to straighten things out in my mind. What really helped was when I considered the difference between:
(A) S SAN HA "IKANAI" TO ITTA (S-san said "I'm not going") (B) S SAN HA TABUN IKANAI TO ITTEITA (S-san said that he would probably not go)
In Japanese, 'TO ITTA' seems to generally be used for marking actual word-for-word quotations, while 'To ITTEITA' seems to generally be used for conveying the general gist of what a third-party has said without quoting verbatim. When I thought about why this was the case, I figured that in (A) a reference was being made to a specific action (the point at which S-san said he wasn't going) whereas (B) was referring to a STATE (i.e. S-san was in the state of having said that he wouldn't go)
Applying this to the JYUGYOU example:
(A) JYUGYOU NI ITTA (I went to class) (B) JYUGYOU NI ITTEITA (I went to class)
So what's the difference? Perhaps (A) is best for expressing events in the recent past, and the focus is more on the action itself (I WENT to class) whereas (B) again describes the STATE of having been to class, so the focus is a little more neutral, perhaps more on the destination (I went to CLASS - I'm in the state of having gone to class). This ties up nicely with the tendency to use the ~TEIRU form exclusively when talking about things you didn't do:
(A) JYUGYOU NI IKANAKATTA (?? not usually translated as 'I didn't go to class') (B) JYUGYOU NI ITTENAKATTA (I didn't go to class)
In the negative case, this phrase is then translated in (B) as 'I'm in the state of not having gone to class' which makes sense as the action of 'not having gone' is continuous, unlike IKU which can either be continuous or not.
Of course, JYUGYOU NI ITTEITA can also describe the actual state of 'was going' as opposed to 'having gone', as would be it's sole meaning if translated literally into English, but I guess this is a matter of context. I'd guess that it only adopts this meaning if used in the kind of 'consecutive action' phrases I mentioned in my first post e.g.
JYUGYOU NI ITTETE, TOMODACHI WO GUZEN NI ATTA (while I was going to class, I met my friend by chance)
Perhaps the problem is in English we don't tend to use the gerund (~ing) in the past tense unless it is in sentences such as the above. ('I was going to class' sounds like an incomplete sentence). However, in Japanese it's possible, and I'm thinking the nuance then shifts more to the state of having done the action described by the verb as opposed to necessarily the action of the verb itself. Well, that's my theory!
Thanks for the example with IKU and IRU - which also gave me some food for thought. As you say, if you translate literally, the version using IKU doesn't make much sense, but Japanese seem to say it all the time! I guess within the framework I just described above, however, the difference between the two becomes less critical, as when using IKU the meaning becomes 'am in the state of having gone to class' and with IRU 'am in the state of having been in class' which is essentially the same thing.
Sorry for the very long reply, but I thought I'd post my latest understanding here incase it helps anyone else (or lest it's completely wrong!) Thanks again for all of your help - you've certainly helped me to develop my understanding, and made me think a little more critically about the differences in usage between ~TEITA and ~TA.