Thursday, November 11, 2010
Struggling with the Past Perfect
By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
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.