In this post we’re looking closely at, or eyeing, past perfect tense. In a previous post I showed that past perfect tense is probably not very useful in IELTS writing and speaking. It belongs more to the narrative genre, and in IELTS we don’t write stories!
When I explain this to students and they look at me as though they don’t really believe me, and so we go ahead and look at a story to see how past perfect works.
The following video contains a story, and I have devised a listening activity to help you to focus on the use of past perfect in the story. If you’re not sure how past perfect works, please see my earlier post for an explanation and examples before continuing with the listening.
- Watch / Listen to the story and write down (on a piece of paper) all of the verbs that relate to events in the story, one after the other, as you hear them. Pause the video occasionally to give yourself time to write. Do that now. The next instruction follows the video.
- After you have watched the video / listened to the story, look at your list of verbs (events) and number the events as they actually happened in time (chronologically): First thing that happened ‘1’, second event ‘2’, third event ‘3’, etc.
- Next, compare the sequence of events that you have written down with your numbered chronological sequence. You will find that not all of the events in the video are mentioned chronologically beginning with the earliest and ending with the final event.
- Identify the events in the video that are mentioned outside of the chronological sequence and write these events in the comments box below this post. What tense is used to introduce these ‘out of sequence’ events in the video?
As usual, I look forward to reading your comments!
😦 Through television broadcasting many people had known about the president’s vision and mission.
Even without looking at the surrounding text, it’s extremely unlikely that past perfect tense was the right choice here.
Actually there are very few situations in IELTS writing where past perfect is appropriate. The only time you will need it in the writing test is in Task 1. I have written a post about past perfect in Task 1 writing.
Past perfect is used mostly in narrative when the writer wants to introduce events in non-chronological order, for example when certain events are for some reason more important than other events.
Most of the time past simple tense is all I need to recount a series of events in the past:
This morning I went to the bank and then I went to the post office.
On the other hand, if someone asked me “When did you go to the post office?” then I might reply:
This morning I went to the post office after I had been to the bank.
The chronology is the same – bank, then post office – but I was asked specifically about post office, and so I mentioned post office first.
Again, this re-ordering of events is almost never necessary in IELTS writing, and seldom used in speaking. Indonesian students over-use past perfect tense and rarely use it appropriately. My advice would be to stop using it altogether, at least in the IELTS test!
For my next post I’m planning a listening activity to focus on the sequencing of events in narratives. Stay tuned! 🙂
Past perfect tense needs to be handled with care. It is most useful in the narrative genre and is seldom needed in Task 2 writing. However, Task 1 essays occasionally present an opportunity to use past perfect.
Let’s try an exercise! Follow my instructions carefully and attempt the tasks before reading my sample texts.
- Look at the following graph and attempt to describe it in two short paragraphs. The first paragraph will focus on general trends and will begin:
The second paragraph will describe details and will begin:
When you’re happy with your writing, you can read my sample text.
In general, Facebook had by far the highest number of active users per month, and this number increased by more than 50% during the period. Despite having far fewer users per month, Twitter experienced a similar increase in numbers, but was overtaken half way through the period by Instagram.
In detail, Facebook already had a billion active users in 2012, but by 2015 this figure had increased to more than 1.5 billion. Twitter was in second place until 2014 when the monthly number of active Instagram users began to exceed that of Twitter users, and by 2015 Instagram had taken a 0.1 billion user lead over Twitter, forcing Twitter into third position. Similarly, by 2015 Snapchat had attracted only half as many active users per month as Instagram.
Notice the structural use of past perfect in the detail section. I admit that I went a bit mad with it, but I strongly recommend this structure:
By + past time expression + subject + V3
- Take another look at your own text. Did you use my past perfect structure? If not, can you edit your text so as to include it in at least one sentence? Please share your writing in the comments section!