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Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense is formed with the past tense of the verb to have (had) and the past participle of the verb (e.g. eaten, stolen, taken).

The past perfect tense describes an event that happened in the past before another event  was completed in the past. It tells us which event happened first regardless of which event is mentioned first or second in a sentence or conversation.

 

The Past Perfect Tense is used:
1. to show an action happened in the past before another event took place.

  • Words usually used with the Past Perfect tense are when and after.

Example: They had already finished their dinner when I arrived to join them.
Example: When he had done his homework, he went for a smoke in the park.
Example: After I had eaten five apples, I felt ill.
Example: I arrived at the cinema after the film had started.
In each of the above examples there are two past actions. The past perfect tense is combined with a past simple tense to show which of the two actions happened earlier.
The event in the past perfect tense occurred before the event in the simple past tense.

 

  • Words such as already, just and as soon as are also used with the Past Perfect tense.

Example: It had already stopped raining when I bought an umbrella.
Example: The whole house had just burnt down when the firemen got there.
Example: As soon as she had got married, she regretted it.


2. for an action which happened before a definite time in the past.
Example: They had finished their prayers by ten o'clock.


3. for an action which took place and completed in the past.
Example: He had hurt his back in an accident at work and he had to stay at home for three months.
(The action happened and he suffered the consequences all in the past)


4. for states.
Example: They had become good friends for many years after meeting on holiday.

 

When two actions were completed in the past, use a past perfect tense to clarify which event happened earlier.
a) INCORRECT: The museum occupied the building where the art gallery was.
b) CORRECT: The museum occupied the building where the art gallery had been.
c) INCORRECT: The list of movies you showed me, I saw before.
d) CORRECT: The list of movies you showed me, I had seen before.
In (a), the use of two simple past tenses (occupied; was) imply the museum and the art gallery occupied the same building at the same time, which was not the case. In (b), the use of the perfect tense (had been) sorts out the order of occupation of the building.
In (c), 'I saw before' clearly indicates it happened before the list was showed to me, and so should be in the past perfect tense as in (d).

 

Sometimes the past perfect tense and the past simple tense are used separately in different sentences.
Example: This morning we visited John in the hospital. He had just been admitted with stomach pains.
The past simple tense precedes the past perfect tense. Notice the action in the past perfect tense happened first.

 

Before and after
As mentioned above, the event expressed in the past perfect tense occurred earlier than the event in the past simple tense. However, when before or after is used in a sentence, the past perfect tense becomes unnecessary as the two words - before or after – already clarify which action takes place first. We can use the simple past tense instead. Look at these examples.

a) After she had read the letter, she tore it into pieces.
b) After she read the letter, she tore it into pieces.
c) We had left the stadium before the match ended.
d) We left the stadium before the match ended.
Changing the past perfect tense to past simple tense does not affect the meaning of the sentences as (a) and (b) have the same meaning, and (c) and (d) have the same meaning.

 

The past perfect tense and the present perfect tense
The salad bowl was empty. I had eaten the salad.
The salad bowl is empty. I have eaten the salad.
We were tired. We had just had a long walk.
We are tired. We have just had a long walk.
Grandma was limping. She had fallen down a drain.
Grandma is limping. She has fallen down a drain.

 

The past perfect tense and the simple past tense - how they are used

  • George is the captain of his football team. He started playing football when he was 9 years old. He became the best striker in the country when he was only seventeen.
  • George was the captain of his football team. He had started playing football when he was 9 years old. He had become the best striker in the country when he was only seventeen.

Indirect speech
The Past Perfect Tense is often used in Reported or Indirect Speech. It is used in place of the verb in the:

1. present perfect tense in the direct speech:
  Direct speech: He said, "I have lost my puppy."
  Indirect speech: He said he had lost his puppy.
2. simple past tense in the direct speech:
  Direct speech: She said, "I made the biggest birthday cake in town."
  Indirect speech: She said she had made the biggest birthday cake in town

 

Past perfect tense used after 'if' , 'if only' and 'wish'
The past perfect tense is used to express an impossible condition as it refers to something which did or did not happen in the past.
Example: I would have bought two if I had brought enough money.
Example: If only he had shut up at the meeting.
Example: I wish you had bought one for me.
Example: They wish they had not seen that scary movie.

 

Past perfect tense used after certain expressions
Past perfect tense is often used after the following expressions in bold:
I knew (that) his brother had gone to work overseas.
I didn't know (that) he had stopped smoking.
I thought (that) we had got on the wrong train.
I was sure (that) their birds had eaten my bananas.
I wasn't sure (that) the snake had bitten him.

 

Passive form of past perfect tense
We put been in front of the past participle in the active form to make the passive form.
The passive form is used to show that something was done to the subject and not by the subject.
Example: He said he had been chased by a rhinoceros.
Example: I did not know that I had been invited to her wedding.