While it is true that the past perfect is very past-oriented, much of the time, we do not need it. For example, we are not likely to say, “I had gone to the gym. Then I met Gemini for coffee.” We usually stick to the simple past. The simple past allows us to march along towards the present, occasionally using the past continuous to show an intersection in time but perfectly happy to avoid had and its tricky past participles until we absolutely need it.
The past perfect, then, needs the conditions to be just right. So it stands to reason that, as English language teachers, we need to identify and exploit contexts in which it naturally occurs. If we do not, we risk giving students an elegant tool without teaching them how to use it as in the following:
I visited Da Lat with my family in 2009. Da Lat had had a big zoo. I had explored the zoo with my family. Then we had eaten dinner at a restaurant.
This excerpt is a classic case of a student misusing a structure from a recent grammar lesson. She forms the past perfect well enough but she has not nailed the use. The gap is in her understanding of the way the past perfect works beyond the sentence level, someplace grammar books rarely go—though to be fair, they are improving.
What this student needs is a little bit more than the notion that an event happened before another past tense event. She needs scaffolding that can guide her in changing the direction that time is moving, for that is when the past perfect becomes useful.
Notice the way the past perfect reverses the trajectory of the narrative in this paragraph on caving from an article in the New Yorker.
On his thirteenth day underground, when he’d come to the edge of the known world and was preparing to pass beyond it, Marcin Gala placed a call to the surface. He’d traveled more than three miles through the earth by then, over stalagmites and boulder fields, cave-ins and vaulting galleries. He’d spidered down waterfalls, inched along crumbling ledges, and bellied through tunnels so tight that his back touched the roof with every breath. Now he stood at the shore of a small, dark, pool under a dome of sulfurous flowstone. He felt the weight of the mountain above him—a mile of solid rock–and wondered if he’d ever find his way back again. It was his last chance to hear his wife and daughter’s voices before the cave swallowed him up.
The writer starts in the middle of his story. Then he deliberately travels back in time, using the past perfect to show how the caver got there, adding exposition and suspense along the way. This adept use of the structure reveals that the past perfect can be used to create a sense of adventure or drama. We see it in sentences like, Luckily, I had brought a flashlight. He was exhausted because he had been hiking all day. We had spent all our money, so we could not afford a hotel.
So at least one way to get the past perfect into a meaningful context is to have students explain an event. They can set up a past tense situation. Then they can change directions to back up and give information about something that was previously unknown.
The following are two ways to use contexts to elicit past perfect. The first is controlled, using a sentence frame with because to guide students in giving reasons. The second is less controlled, providing students with a prompt that provides scaffolding for a paragraph but allows the student to supply the content.
Practice Activity A: Using the past perfect to give reasons for a past tense event.
This activity ideally follows a presentation of the past perfect and its place on the timeline
Start by asking students to think of and discuss in pairs, possible answers for the question below. Have them use the word because.
Why was Jamal late to his wedding?
While students write and discuss, walk around the room to see what students are producing before eliciting from the class. Ideally, at least a few students produce something like the following.
He was late because he had lost the rings.
He was late because he had stayed up late with his friends the night before.
He was late because his driver had taken him to the wrong church.
Use the examples to point out or elicit the frame, simple past + because + past perfect to explain a past tense event.
Once students are familiar with the pattern have them ask and answer the questions below with a partner. It is up to you whether you want them to do it orally or in writing. If students are practicing orally, consider positioning them so the person answering the question cannot see the written question.
Answer the questions. Use the past + because + the past perfect.
Why wasn’t Sheila at work yesterday?
She missed work because her daughter had gotten sick.
- Why was Jimmy crying?
- Why did Kenji leave in the middle of class?
- Why did Conception scream?
- Why did Federico have to go to the hospital?
- Why was the river so full of water?
- Why was half the city dark last night?
The pair work can lead to feedback on errors you have heard or letting students share their favorite answers.
Follow up: To better personalize the activity, have students write questions about real recent events such as things that occurred in the school or to the city such as the last two above. These can be done as a class and then practiced.
And while you are at it, consider creating a similar activity for assessment purposes.
Activity B: Telling a backwards adventure story.
Begin by having students read a model paragraph that starts at the end of an adventure and uses the past perfect to backtrack to the events of the story (example below). Discuss the way the story moves in time from a point in the past to previous events (in the past perfect). Note that the story ends with a final reflection that again makes use of the past perfect.
It may also be helpful to plot the time shifts on a time line.
Teenagers Lost and Found
By the time I got home that Monday night I was cold, tired, and hungry. I had spent the previous night huddled by a fire with two friends. We had gotten lost while exploring in the woods near town, and we had not been able to make it home. Our parents had called their friends and the police to search for us, and eventually, they had found us and brought us home safely. When it was over, we were sorry, but we couldn’t help feeling that the adventure had been just a little bit fun.
Next, introduce the prompt and discuss how the example models the specifications for the assignment.
Write a backwards adventure story. Start by writing a sentence about how you felt at the end of the adventure. Then use the past perfect to go back in time and tell the story that explains why you felt the way you did.
You may also want to provide foci for idea generation:
- A time weather surprised you
- A time you got lost
- A time you were brave
- A time you helped someone
- A time you were surprised by an animal
Once students have a story in mind, ask them to discuss or write a few details, so that the information will be accessible to them as they write. Remind them to write a topic sentence about how they felt when the adventure was over. (You may also want to point out that the event could be introduced in the title as a way to clarify the topic sentence.) Then have them complete their adventure stories.
As they write, circulate and provide individuals with assistance in making decisions about whether to use the past, past progressive or the past perfect.
After they have drafted their paragraphs, it may be useful to bring the class together and clarify any issues that you noticed while they were writing. Give them a chance to make corrections based on the feedback.
Finally, provide opportunities for students to share their stories orally or in written form. Small groups work best for large classes, but it might be fun to have a few volunteers tell their story to the whole class if the class is small and the stories are interesting.
If all goes well, the outcome of this activity provides students with a sense of how the past perfect is not just a piece of grammar but a rhetorical device for shaping the way content is delivered.
In Deep: The dark and dangerous world of extreme cavers, by Burkard Bilger, The New Yorker, April 21st 2014.
Trio: The Intersection of Vocabulary, Grammar and Writing, by Alice Savage & Colin Ward, Oxford University Press, 2015.