Past Perfect

This tense is an advance tense and we use it to talk about the past in a lot of interesting ways, and you’ll see what they are. So are you ready? Let’s start.

intermediate
"Past Perfect" Tense in English Grammar

What Is Past Perfect Tense?

The past perfect tense (also called the pluperfect) is for talking about something that happened before something else. It is used to make it clear that one action happened before another action in the past.

Past Perfect: Structure

The past perfect is composed of the past tense of the verb to have (had), plus the past participle of the main verb. The past participle is regularly formed with an -ed suffix (e.g. looked, ended, tutored) but has many irregular forms (e.g. broken, made, understood).

Subject past tense of have past participle
All subjects had worked

When we use the past perfect tense in speaking, we often contract the subject and auxiliary verb. Here are the examples:

My new job wasn't exactly what I had expected. → My new job wasn't exactly what I’d expected.

When we arrived, she had left. → When we arrived, she'd left.

Past Perfect: Negation

For negative sentences, you put 'not' after the auxiliary verb 'had.' These are the examples:

He had published his first poem when he was 27. → He had not published his first poem when he was 27.

We had left. → We had not left.

In negative sentences, we can contract the auxiliary verb and 'not.' See the example:

We had not left. → We hadn't left.

Past Perfect: Questions

For yes/no questions sentences, we invert the subject and 'had.' Look at these examples with the past perfect tense:

They had arrived. → Had they arrived?

She had eaten dinner. → Had she eaten dinner?

For wh- question, do the exact thing you do for yes/no questions and add the proper wh- question word at the beginning of the sentence and omit the part that is the answer. Take a look at the examples:

She had gone to Paris. → Where had she gone?

Here 'to Paris' is the answer that is omitted in the question.

They had left in June. → When had they left?

Tip!

If you want to learn more about spelling rules of adding -ed to the base form of verbs, see here.

Using Past Perfect to Talk about an Action Happening before Another Action

Past Perfect: Uses

When someone uses the present perfect tense, they are talking about:

  1. Actions that happened before another action in the past
  2. Actions that happened before a specific time in the past
  3. States that started in the past, and continued up to some time in the past

Actions That Happened Before Another Action in the Past

We use the 'past perfect tense' to talk about the order of two past events. The past perfect shows the earlier action and the past simple shows the later action. So, if there are two actions following each other, for the action closest to the present use Simple Past, and for the action that came before it use Past Perfect.

When the police arrived, the thief had escaped.

It doesn't matter in which order we say the two events. 'The thief had escaped when the police arrived' has the same meaning.

I had fed the cat before I ate my dinner.

Actions That Happened Before a Specific Time in the Past

We use the 'past perfect tense' to talk about something that started in the past and continued up to another action or time in the past. Just remember, when the sequences of the actions are obvious do not use the 'past perfect tense.' Here are the examples for more clarification.

When he graduated, he had been in London for six years.

He arrived in London six years before he graduated and lived there until he graduated, or even longer.

On the 3rd of November, I'd worked here for five months.

States That Started in the Past, and Continued up to Some Time in the Past

This usage is specific to state verbs, not actions. We use past perfect with verbs such as like, think, love, hate, believe, etc. to refer to a state that started in the past and continued up to some time in the past. Take a look at some examples:

Sara had wanted a dog, but received a hamster.

I had been happy until you started overeating.

Grammatical Notions

Common Time Expressions

  1. since/for
  2. Just
  3. Ever/Never
  4. before
  5. until then
  6. Already
  7. Yet

We can also use the past perfect + before to show that an action was not done or was incomplete when the past simple action happened. Check out these examples:

They left before I'd spoken to them.

Unfortunately, the man died before he'd seen his daughter's wedding day.

We can use 'Just' with the past perfect to refer to an event that happened only a short time before now. For example:

The train had just left when I arrived at the station.

Warning

Note that if there's only a single event and no adverb indicating a time up to a point in the past, we do not use the past perfect, even if it happened a long time ago. For instance:

Early humans lived in caves. (Not "Early humans had lived in caves.")

Reported Speech

We often use the past perfect in reported speech after verbs like: said, told, asked, thought, wondered.
These are some examples with the past perfect tense:

He told us that the train had left.

He explained that he had closed the window because it was chilly.

Common Time Expressions

We often use the adverbs already, still, ever or never with the past perfect. Here are the examples:

I called his office but he'd already left.

Already means 'before the specified time', so the sentence means 'before he called the office, we had left).

It still hadn't snowed at the beginning of December.

Still means 'continuing until a particular point in time and not finishing'.

She was the most beautiful girl I'd ever met.

Ever means 'at any time before the specified time'.

I'd never met anyone from Iran before I met Sarah.

Never means 'at no time before the specified time'.

The Third Conditional

We use the 'past perfect tense' to talk about unreal or imaginary situations in the past. In this case, it is important to know that the situation we are talking about is not real and it is totally hypothetical.
Have a look at the examples:

If I had known you were under the weather, I would have visited you.

She would have passed the exam if she had studied harder.

Subjunctives

You can use the 'past perfect tense' before the words such as 'hope, expect, want, plan, think about, wish' to indicate an intention that was not fulfilled. It means that you could not achieve the goal and now you cannot change it and sometimes you regret it.
For example:

I had wished to get a new job!

The swimmer had hoped to get the gold.

Sometimes you use the 'past perfect tense' after a clause with the verb 'wish' to indicate that you regret doing or not doing something. Check out the examples for more clarification.

I wish I had studied harder.

She wishes she had never met him.

Review

Structure, Contraction, Affirmative, Negative, and Question Forms

Here, there is a table for all the general rules of this lesson. Have a look at it!

Structure subject + had + past participle
Affirmative His sister had talked to the principal.
Negative His sister had not talked to the principal.
Contraction His sister hadn't talked to the principal.
Yes/no question Had his sister talked to the principal?
Wh-question Who had talked to the principal?

We use the past perfect tense to talk about:

  1. An action happening before another action
  2. A finished action before a second point in the past
  3. In reported speech
  4. In the third conditionals

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