Archive for Tag: past perfect

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

newjgea@aol.com

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.

STAGE 1

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

STAGE 2

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.

STAGE 3

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.

STAGE 4

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.

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.