past perfect for past

Damien Hall djh514 at
Sat Aug 14 10:50:52 UTC 2010

I'm forwarding (below) an exchange I've had with Danielle Cyr (York U., 
Toronto) about this over the last few days. Many of her students (who are 
mostly not first-language English speakers) see any semantic or pragmatic 
difference between past perfect and past. She offers to ask a colleague to 
administer Dahl's TMA questionnaire (1985?) to them, if anyone is 
interested (as she herself is away from Toronto at the moment). It's not my 
area, but the offer is there in case anyone else is interested!


> Danielle said:
> > My students at York University in Toronto are from a highly 
> > multicultural and multilingual background. Very few of them, and even 
> > fewer of their parents, have English as their first language. Most of 
> > them, however, have had their high school years in Canada. They do not 
> > have the faintest notion of the difference between simple past and past 
> > perfect, especially of the resultative aspect in past perfect. Only a 
> > couple of mature students still know the difference.

I replied:

> This is very interesting! So do you mean that many of your students use 
> the past perfect and the simple past forms interchangeably, with the 
> meaning of simple past? Or do they use only one of the forms but with 
> both meanings?

Danielle replied:

I have not done any research on what they use in specific contexts. I have 
only noticed their puzzlement when I explain that there is a semantic and 
pragmatic difference between the two forms. For them the two forms seem to 
be more or less synonymic. When I try to trigger the resultative aspect of 
the past perfect and present perfect most students respond by adding the 
adverb 'already' + the perfect (which is consistent with Osten Dahl and 
Joan Bybee's research of 1985). I am on sabbatical right now and away from 
Toronto. If you are interested I could ask a colleague to apply Dahl's TMA 
questionnaire with the students and try to see what comes out.

Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673


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