Monday, December 13, 2010

So, Who’s Lying, Inspector? The “Perfect” Activity for Practicing the Past Perfect

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

In my last blog I discussed an alternative way of introducing the Past Perfect. I proposed that teachers kick off their set of lessons on this “unruly” bit of grammar by presenting contexts in which the use of the Past Perfect is essential to the intended meaning of a message, and only afterward moving on to sentences in which the Past Perfect can be substituted for the Simple Past.  This, I suggested, would allow students to get a feel for the Past Perfect’s semantic impact, for its force.

I also promised there to share my favorite Past Perfect activity.  The idea for this activity came when I happened on an exercise entitled “The Perfect Detective,” which is included in The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book by Nick Hall and John Shepheard.  Though based on the concept of that exercise, my activity differs in several ways; I introduced some changes in order to allow students to be involved at all stages of the task.

The activity not only encourages learners to identify the real differences in the meanings of various messages, but it tends to engage students quite naturally.

What does it ask students to do?

Solve a crime.


The teacher presents the crime scene, but not by simply telling students what happened.  Instead, the teacher makes this stage interactive and suggestive by offering no more than the list of key words and phrases below, from which students must attempt to deduce the series of events.

John Flitz    9 p.m.    country house    dinner    six guests   midnight   shots heard    Flitz’s body    discover


Students are informed that the guests who attended that infamous dinner party are being interrogated by two inspectors.  In pairs, students compose testimonies for the guests by completing a worksheet provided.  Each student of each pair will complete one version (A or B) of the worksheet in order to create his or her set of testimonies.


Once the two versions of the worksheet are filled in, students are told that four of the six guests had plotted the murder, and that those guests gave testimonies which contradict one another.  Students who completed version A of the worksheet then compare their testimonies with students who completed version B of the worksheet.  By paying close attention to the meaning changes caused by the alternating uses of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past in their sets of testimonies, students will be able to determine which guests are telling the truth, and which guests are lying and may well have plotted the murder of Flitz.


After students have decided, in pairs, who the four suspects must be, one student from each pair reads out the suspects’ names.  The teacher writes on the board the names read out for each pair.  Students are then asked to justify their decisions, highlighting the meanings conveyed by the use of the Past Perfect in some testimonial statements and the use of the Simple Past in others.

It seems to me that the force of the Past Perfect is illustrated quite vividly in this activity.

OK, so students won’t be thinking that they’ll necessarily be incarcerated for using the wrong construction, but they may well come to realize that getting a handle on that unruly old Past Perfect is worth their time.

Hall, N., and J. Shepheard. The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book. Essex: Longman, 1991. 131-132. Print.


Comment from Norman Palomino
January 24, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Ela, again Norman from Colombia, now my partners in the school all time disccussig about different ways to teach english one of my question is if we teach english with grammar rules or if we teach languages each one in the other but this kind of exercises are very important in special when we work in the class room with these topics. thanks.

Comment from Anita
February 2, 2011 at 9:15 am

Hi Ela, Its so exciting to know we can teach grammar which is considered dry and non interesting be so interesting and encouraging.

Comment from Ela Newman
February 3, 2011 at 7:45 am

Yes, in many people’s eyes (still), teaching grammar is synonymous with teaching something, as you say, “dry.” I do hope that this perspective changes. I think that there is always a way to turn even the “driest” aspect of grammar into a concept that is both fun and rewarding to teach and fun and rewarding to learn. Thanks for your comment, Anita!

Comment from AH KHUM ZHAO
May 18, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Ela Newman,

You are a Godsend for posting this: So, Who’s Lying, Inspector? The “Perfect” Activity for Practicing the Past Perfect on your blog! Please, please, please may I use this activity? Also, thank you for sharing the book title; I shall definitely look it up in my library, failing that I shall buy it!

Ah Khum Zhao

Comment from Ela
May 30, 2011 at 11:18 am

Hello again Ah Khum Zhao! I believe we exchanged emails regarding your question, yes? I hope you and your students enjoyed the activity.

Comment from Koen, Belgium
September 27, 2011 at 1:58 am

Hey Ela,

I was searching on the net in order to find some alternative methods to teach the past perfect. I found your ideas very good, I’m now preparing my lesson 🙂

thanks again

Comment from Ela Newman
September 27, 2011 at 11:05 am

I’m happy to hear the activity looked promising enough for you to try. It’s one of my favorite exercises for practicing the Past Perfect. Hope you and your students enjoy it, too!

Comment from Pedro
December 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm

So, who are the killers?

Comment from Ela Newman
December 13, 2012 at 6:47 am

If we consider the discrepancies in four guests’ testimonies,it looks like A. Lawn, E. Parody, F. Glance, and K. Rustle are our main suspects.

Comment from Surabhi
March 3, 2013 at 6:29 am

Thanks, Sounds interesting and doable. Will try it tomorrow.

Comment from Simon Harris
July 24, 2013 at 3:39 am

Hi Ela, great activity but I need to be clear to my ESL learners. The reason Micing and SPloy are “innocernt” is because their statements do not specify a time, only actions, whereas the others are , except F Glance as he had driven away therefore could not have heard the shots???

Comment from Rarquel
October 29, 2013 at 8:43 am

I’d like to see an answer sheet or timeline explaining the reasoning – would make it easier to explain to my students if *I* had an answer sheet to help out.

Comment from Kim
November 3, 2015 at 5:21 am

I also want to know, so I’m glad everyone else asked, too. I agree with what Simon’s reasoning, and I think it’s also that the 4 suspects have Freudian slips in that the meaning of their testimony changes with changes in simple past vs. past perfect. With Mary and Samantha, they both say “after” which doesn’t require the use of past perfect. The meaning doesn’t change if you say he died after I informed him or he died after I had informed him, so their testimony is consistent with both detectives, and therefore they are not lying/murderers.

Comment from Ksenia
February 29, 2016 at 10:20 am

I also would like to see an answer sheet or timeline explaining the reasoning

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