past perfect imperfections

One of the most common explanations of the use of the past perfect is this:

Sometimes, as a result of such an explanation, students come up with sentences such as this:

I answered the door when the plumber had rang the bell.

What can one do to avoid this situation? How would you explain to them that this sentence is ungrammatical?

You could send Pete and Rusty a note suggesting that they include a link to their simple past tense page on their past perfect page, for example.

Show Rusty and Pete how to fix the pipe themselves, thus avoiding the necessity of calling a plumber. No plumber, no doorbell, no need to write about it.

Plus they learn a valuable, marketable skill.

I could, but even students who have been taught how to use the past simple still make errors such as the above. Students of that type still ask why they can’t say:

I answered the door when the plumber had rang the bell when the rule says “The Past Perfect expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past.”

What would you tell those students?

Never trust a plumber’s grammar, obviously.

Where did the plumber speak? I must have missed it?

I think in most cases when you use the past perfect instead of the simple past, you want to stress that between both events a significant period time passed. In your example, both events happen almost simultaneously.[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, photographs: A private airplane[YSaerTTEW443543]

An interesting observation, Torsten, but what does a student do with “in most cases” and “a significant period (of time)”?

Any person will understand that no language learned by trying to look for logical explanations of ‘grammar rules’. Just relax and enjoy exploring the language. Read more. Watch more TV, etc. Do the same activities you do when using your native language. Spend less time thinking about grammar.[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, photographs: Out for a walk[YSaerTTEW443543]

Do you suppose this might help, Molly?

The above is a partial quote from the same source as the partial quote in your first post.

Easy to say, but one of the most visited forums here is the English Vocabulary, Grammar and Idioms forum, and most question there seem to be about grammar. Also, if one is an ESL student study for one of the Cambridge Exams, for example, one really can not “Spend less time thinking about grammar.”.

How would it?

If you prepare for one of the Cambridge exams or for any other English language exam, you need to improve your English. The more you talk about grammar in terms of rules, the more difficult it gets for you. That’s why we encourage our forum users to ask specific questions providing us with as much context as possible. For example, if somebody reads a book and comes across a sentence, an expression or even a word they find difficult to understand, they can post them so we can discuss them.

By the way, I think Amy answered your question.[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, photographs: Methods of transportation[YSaerTTEW443543]

I’m not so sure. Does her answer cover “When he had finished dinner, we sat down to talk” and “We sat down to talk when he had finished dinner”?

It seems you are trying to make it look more complicated than it actually is.[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, photographs: A one horse carriage[YSaerTTEW443543]

How simple is it, T? Can you explain it in a simple, satisfactory way?

The sentence contains a typo, presumably to add verisimilitude, etc., but it doesn’t seem “ungrammatical” to me. “Unidiomatic” in most likely contexts, perhaps.

Pete and Rusty don’t say that you must use the past perfect, where one event precedes another; they also provide additional information about “when” and the past simple, as Amy shows. Taken together, these cover the “dyslexic plumber” problem.

On the other hand, the header on their “past perfect” page does refer to completed actions: which covers your “chat after dinner” example.

Note this difference between the “dinner” and “doorbell” examples: the “ringing” event is still “open”, as we know from the fact that the chimes are still echoing chintzily down the hallway; whereas the “dinner” is “finished” and all eructations are complete.

(This might be a good time, by the way, to raise our hats to Pete and Rusty, who do a very thorough job over at English Page.)



Maybe you could get the student to look at different forms of expression for the sentence they produced, for example;

I answered the door after the plumber rang the door bell.
OR I answered the door bell as the plumber rang/ was ringing the door bell.

If you then asked them to try to distinguish the difference, they may come up with an accurate observation.

You can always, as Torsten mentioned, come up with overcomplexity, but is this a necessity of a teacher?

I would argue anyway doing this is;

a) wanting to impress
b) challenging a higher level student
c) deliberately picking holes in the English grammar explanations

any of the above.

Or just needs to move past self created walls and just learn through adding some acceptance to the mix.

Does “grammatical” not include “idiomatic”, in your use of the word?

Yes, we know, but I’m talking about how, in quite a few cases, students “misinterpret” such written “rules”. Does the problem lie with the student in such cases or with the writers?

So, can you rewrite the past perfect rule for us and include your “subjective-considerations” approach?

You might spend your life arguing then. Do you fear challenges to your professional position? And what does “I would argue anyone” mean?

If that didn’t happen, we’d still have the grammar explanations from 200 years or more ago, Stew. Would you like that?

It may not be, but teachers should also admit that oversimplfying can also cause confusion. Teachers who give simplified explanations should also be ready to admit that such explanations may also lead to confusion in later stages of learning. And, when challenged on their simplified explanations, teachers should be ready to discuss “misunderstandings” openly. One should always be ready to look at one’s teaching methods and make adjustments where necessary, shouldn’t one?

So, I think this should apply to teachers as well as to students: