Tuesday, October 2, 2012

SAT Question: Why So (Past Perfect Simple) Tense?


Carrie writes:
OMG, Snarky. Why do we need so many verb tenses? They are so confusing! In today's official SAT question, I didn't see any error so I chose Choice E. But the correct answer is Choice A and the explanation has to do with tenses. Can you please explain?

Sure thing. Here's today's SAT question:
The following sentence contains either a single error or no error at all. If the sentence contains an error, select the one underlined part that must be changed to make the sentence correct. If the sentence contains no error, select choice E.   
Although Mrs. Griffin has not previously been very enthusiastic about preparing her students for the annual piano competition, she put in extra time this year to ensure that her star pupil would win first prize. 
As Carrie says, the correct answer is Choice A. The first clause is currently in the present perfect simple tense, when it should be in the past perfect simple.

So why do we need so many different tenses? We use tenses to indicate when the action (verb) is taking place. Is it happening right now? In the future? In the past? But as Carrie points out, it's more complex than that. For example, in the past tense, did the action just happen? Did it happen a long time ago? Has it been happening for a while and is still ongoing? In today's SAT question, the sentence contains two actions that both take place in the past.

First we have a dependent clause (can not stand alone as a sentence): Although Mrs. Griffin has not previously been very enthusiastic about preparing her students for the annual piano competition

After the comma, we have an independent clause (can stand alone as a sentence): She put in extra time this year to ensure that her star pupil would win first prize.

Luckily, this sentence is loaded with signal words to help us make sense of what's happening and when. The preposition although sets up the expectation of a change or shift, while previously and this year indicate a time marker. There is a difference between how Mrs. Griffin behaved before this year (was not enthusiastic) compared to her behavior this year (put in extra time).

In both clauses, the main action is in the past tense, but the writer wants to stress that the action in the first clause happened first. That requires the present perfect simple or the past perfect simple.

Quick rules:
  • Use the present perfect simple to indicate action that is still ongoing or was completed very recently. Subject + present of 'have' + past participle. Sophia has been happy with her grades, and is continuing to work with a tutor to keep them up. [The notion 'to be happy' is still ongoing.]
  • Use the past perfect simple to indicate that action has been completed, is over, finito.  Subject + simple past of 'have' + past participle. Sophia had been happy with her grades until she tanked the midterm. [The notion 'to be happy' is finished. The signal word 'until' implies a before and after.]
Correction:
  • Although Mrs. Griffin had not previously been very enthusiastic about preparing her students for the annual piano competition, she put in extra time this year to ensure that her star pupil would win first prize. [The notion 'to not be enthusiastic' is completed.]

More practice:
  • Mr. Cooper finished telling the class about Friday's test. Simple past.
  • Mr. Cooper has finished telling the class about Friday's test and will now move on to the homework questions. Present perfect simple. [The action, 'to finish', was completed very recently.]
  • Mr. Cooper had just finished telling the class about Friday's exam, when Jason asked if there were any upcoming tests. Past perfect simple. [Both actions are in the past, but which came first? Mr. Cooper told the class about Friday's test before Jason asked his question.]

5 comments:

  1. You got the sentence right but the explanation is wrong. We don't say Snarky was born in Nashville and his father had been born in Amarillo.
    His father WAS born in Amarillo.
    The Past Perfect: By the time something happened, something else had ALREADY happened, e.g, "When the cops arrived, the robbers had fled", i.e, they were ALREADY gone.
    Brad.10may2013.

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  2. Sure thing. Here's today's SAT question:

    "Although Mrs. Griffin HAS NOT previously BEEN very enthusiastic about preparing her students for the annual piano competition, she put in extra time this year to ensure that her star pupil would win first prize", should read: Although Mrs. Griffin WAS NOT previously very enthusiastic ... Using 'had been' where 'was' or 'were' belong is a very common error.
    "Sophia WAS happy with her grades until she tanked the midterm."
    Brad.10May2013. br.hadvines (at) yahoo (dot) com.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sorry. Ditto 'has been' where 'was' or 'were' belong, i.e, both 'had been' and 'has been'.

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  4. apostrophe checker online for your best projects. To avoid confusion, no sentence should contain more than two em dashes.

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  5. This is really declarative and well explained lesson. Thanks for sharing such a nice post about The Past Perfect Tense.

    ReplyDelete