Thursday, November 11, 2010

Struggling with the Past Perfect

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

As an EFL learner I appreciate grammar rules.  They provide me a kind of comfort.  They satisfy my curiosity.  They help me achieve accuracy.  They even encourage me to experiment.  Still, there was a time when one set of rules both puzzled and disheartened me – the rules for the Past Perfect.  Those rules I shunned.  They got the cold shoulder from me.  I avoided them like the plague.

I could deal with the use of the Past Perfect in Reported Speech, Conditionals, and constructions beginning with “I wish...” or “If only….”  However, getting my mind around using the Simple Past in place of the Past Perfect in “certain” stylistic contexts was too much for me, and my sense of grammar security became rickety.

On top of that, even after I began to find some comfort in perhaps the most definitive purpose for the use of Past Perfect, namely “to show that one action or state happened before another one in the past,” I’d regularly come up with sentences that sounded unnatural.  Here’s one example: “I had brushed my teeth and I washed my face.”  To my mind, this indicated that the brushing came before the washing, and so the use of the Past Perfect in this context was appropriate and necessary.  I questioned my teacher one day, asking “Isn’t that right?  Isn’t that what the rule says?” She responded, “Yes, that’s what the rule says, but there’s another rule which says that the Simple Past is typically used to list events that occurred in a sequence.”  At that, I sighed.

Clearly, I had a mental block when it came to comprehending the use of the Past Perfect, and even though my teacher would, in an attempt to help us students picture the tense, explain that it referred to a “pre-past” or a “past of the past,” I felt I was just not getting it.

Some time later, I encountered the consoling but unencouraging words of R. A. Owen who states that “the Past Perfect tense is an easy one to become acquainted with, but a difficult one to master,” and further that because in many cases the Past Perfect is used interchangeably with the Simple Past, “the foreigner is left wondering whether the choice of tense in a given context is one of taste, emphasis, meaning, or grammar” (54).

In the end, I got my mind around the nasty Past Perfect.

Realizing now the complexity of it, and remembering my own struggle with it, I’m asking myself the question: What did I need to know as a learner to master that nasty bit of grammar?

  • Before I could deal with the whole Past Perfect-Simple Past interchangeability issue, I needed to know  what roles the Simple Past played that the Simple Past did not.
  • I needed to know from the beginning when I must use the Past Perfect, rather than  when I may use the Past Perfect.

If I was typical in this, it may make good sense for us to begin teaching the use of the Past Perfect by focusing on contexts in which its use modifies the meaning of a message. In some contexts, the use of the Past Perfect in place of the Simple Past genuinely alters the meaning of the message.  Here students can feel a greater impact of the Past Perfect.

We arrived and she had left.

(Compare: We arrived and she left.)

His friends called with his alibi, but the police had hauled him away.

(Compare: His friends called with his alibi, but the police hauled him away.)

Although I had lived in China, I spoke very little Chinese.

(Compare: Although I lived in China, I spoke very little Chinese.)

I have the impression that once students get a feel for the semantic influence of the Past Perfect, they find it much easier to accept the interchangeability of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past (as in sentences containing subordinate clauses beginning with “before” or “after”).  It seems to me that it’s crucial that students get a feel for the “weight” of the Past Perfect.  Introducing students to the Past Perfect by way of contexts in which it modifies the meanings of messages seems a reasonable way to foster in them a feel for that influence.

I’m planning to share my favorite activity for teaching the Past Perfect in my next blog.  I would love to hear about activities you’ve used to teach this tense.

Owen, R.A. (1967). Past Perfect and Simple Past. ELT Journal, 22/1, 54-59.

Comments

Comment from Andy Walujo
November 13, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Hi. I’m from Indonesia. To help my students understand how to use a certain tense, including Past Perfect Tense, I often use clues from their real lives. For example, to teach them Past Perfect Tense, I often ask them,”What time did you come here?” followed by “What had you done before that?” From their answers, I tell them that’s how we use Past Perfect Tense. For example, you had taken a bath before you came here or you had had your lunch before you came here.

Comment from Ela Newman
November 14, 2010 at 7:31 am

I agree, Andy. Personalization is a great approach to teaching a foreign (second) language. Since students tend to appreciate activities that allow them to talk about themselves, this method certainly helps to spark their interest in whatever grammar structure (or vocabulary) our lesson focuses on. While teaching the Past Perfect, I sometimes use an activity similar to the one you shared. I ask students to create a list of crucial decisions they had to make in the past. They are also asked to justify those decisions and, when necessary, to use the Past Perfect. Having to decide between using the Simple Past and the Past Perfect allows them, it seems to me, to start distinguishing between the uses of each tense. Students may say: “I decided to go on a diet because I had put on 50 pounds,” but also “I decided to go on a diet because I weighed 200 pounds.” That would indicate they are getting the “feel” for what the Past Perfect does.

Thanks for sharing your idea. Yes, personalization is the key!

Comment from Andy Walujo
November 15, 2010 at 5:48 pm

I like your activity. I agree that when the students are asked to explain why they did something in the past, they are in a situation in which they may be “forced” to produce a clause in Past Perfect Tense. I think we should always involve Simple Past Tense in teaching Past Perfect Tense. That would make life easier for our students and ourselves alike. Thank you for your feedback, Ms. Newman.

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 17, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Interesting piece, Ella! The easiest way I explain the use of the past perfect is to say that when two actions happened in the past, but not at the same time in the past, the past perfect represents what happened first. This avoids any ambiguity. This explanation seems to work pretty well.

Then I offer these examples:

- When I got to the supermarket, I cashed my paycheck, so I had enough money for groceries.
- When I got to the supermarket, I had cashed my paycheck, so I had enough money for groceries.

I get my students to realize that the first sentence makes it seem as though I cashed my paycheck in the supermarket because both “got to” and “cashed” are in the same tense, whereas the second sentence clearly shows I had the cash in hand when I arrived at the supermarket since those two verbs aren’t in the same tense.

As for conversational English, I tell my students that if there’s no ambiguity or confusion about the sequence of events, the past perfect isn’t all that important or necessary. For example: “When I got home with the groceries, I made dinner.” Nobody will find the sequence of events confusing in such a sentence.

Comment from Ela Newman
November 17, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Hi Richard! I like your sample sentences about going to the supermarket. Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with “sentence pairs” that sound natural and can illustrate the difference in meaning. As I mentioned in my blog, I’ve been noticing that students grasp the function of the Past Perfect much more easily and quickly when they see that it can be a “powerful” tense. And that “force” can be noticed in sentences showing the difference in meaning between the use of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past. And yes, in less formal contexts, the Past Perfect tends to be used less frequently unless, again, we do need it because the Simple Past would change our message. Lately, I’ve been introducing my students to this tense by starting from its “meaning changing” function. I think I would have liked that order when I was a student myself. So far the method seems to be working well. Thanks for your comment!

Comment from bradvines
June 18, 2012 at 11:41 am

Andy Walujo, you wrote (above) “to teach them Past Perfect Tense, I often ask them, ”What time did you come here?” followed by “What had you done before that?” The question is incorrect, so it will likely get an incorrect response. Correct is “What did you do before that?” From their answers, I tell them that’s how we use Past Perfect Tense. For example, you had taken a bath before you came here or you had had your lunch before you came here. Wow. This little box is hard to write in.

Comment from bradvines
June 18, 2012 at 11:46 am

Hmmm. It didn’t all transmit. Your last sentence should read: For example, you TOOK a bath before you came here or you HAD your lunch before you came here. By stating the question incorrectly, you set the students up to give incorrect answers.

Comment from bradvines
June 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

Ms. Newman’s reply to you, “I decided to go on a diet because I had put on 50 pounds” makes the common mistake of putting ‘had’ in front of the past tense verb ‘put’. The word ‘had’ NEVER belongs in front of a past tense verb. Never.

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