There are several past tenses in English to talk about past events, states, and actions.
One of these is the English past perfect.
Are you ready to learn more about it? Don't worry if you find this tense confusing, I'm here to help you understand it better.
In this comprehensive grammar guide, you'll learn how to form the English past perfect tense and when to use it.
You’ll also see a lot of example sentences that will help you get a better understanding of this verb structure.
So, let's get started and take a deeper dive into this useful verb tense.
How To Form The English Past Perfect
The English past perfect is formed by using the past simple form of the auxiliary verb “have” followed by the past participle of the main verb.
- Subject + had + past participle
- Example: When we arrived, she had already left.
Here is how it’s formed in questions, affirmative and negative sentences.
- Subject + had + past participle of the main verb
- I had eaten breakfast before I went to work.
- Subject + had not + past participle of the main verb
- He had not studied for the test, so he failed it.
- Had + subject + past participle of the main verb
- Had you seen that movie before?
As you can see, we need the past participle to form the past perfect. Just a quick reminder about it: the past participle is the verb form that you find in 3rd column of a table of irregular verbs.
|Verb||Past Simple||Past Participle|
While for regular verbs you just add -ed to the verb
|Verb||Past Simple||Past Participle|
You might want to check this guide to the past participle if you need to revise this grammar point.
So, back to the past perfect now. Like many other verb structures in English, forming the English past perfect is quite simple.
What you might find harder, though, is when English speakers use it.
Let’s find out more about this now.
How To Use The English Past Perfect
The English past perfect tense is used to describe an action or event in the past that happened before another past action or event.
Here are some examples:
- I had already finished my homework before I went to the party.
- They had lived in Paris for five years before they moved to London.
- He had read the book twice before the movie came out.
- We had already eaten the cake before the guests arrived.
- She had visited that museum before, so she knew how to get there.
- She had not studied enough for the exam, so she failed it.
- He had not seen that movie before, so they decided to watch it.
- The store had not received the items, so they had to cancel the order.
- The team had not practiced enough, so they lost the game.
- They had not cleaned the house before their friends arrived.
- Had you ever travelled abroad before that trip?
- Had she finished her work before the deadline?
- Had they seen that movie before?
- Had he eaten dinner before he went to the party?
- Had the company received the payment before the project was completed?
It's very common to use the past perfect when you're already talking about the past and want to go further back in time for a moment. You do this to make it clear that something happened before what we are talking about.
It sounds harder than it is, so let’s analyse one short text in detail:
Yesterday I was talking with a woman at the bus station. At some point during our conversation, I realised that I had already talked to her before in the supermarket.
This short text is about some events that happened in the past (it starts with “Yesterday…..”). We have 3 main verbs so we have 3 past actions:
- Talking with a woman
- Realising something
- Meeting the woman
But what is the order of the events? In other words, which of these three happened first in the past? It’s easy: the first event that happened is the one that is described by the past perfect.
I first met the woman at the supermarket. After that, I started having a conversation at the bus stop and then I had a moment of realisation while I was talking to her.
Here are some more examples to clarify this.
- I realised I had left my phone at home when I arrived at the office.
- The concert had started before we arrived at the venue.
- She couldn't find her keys because she had dropped them somewhere else.
- They decided to cancel the trip because they had already spent all their money.
- He couldn't sleep because he had had too much coffee.
- I couldn't find the book because I had lent it to someone else.
- The house was messy because they had not cleaned it for weeks.
- She felt guilty because she had forgotten her friend's birthday.
- The road was closed because there had been an accident earlier.
- When I got home, I noticed that I had left the lights on.
So, as you can see, the English past perfect is often used to indicate that one action or event was completed before another one happened in the past.
Past Perfect And Third Conditional
But this verb structure is also used to form the third conditional structure in English. Here's a complete guide to the English conditional tense where you can learn about the third conditional too, so let’s keep things brief here.
Basically, the past perfect is used as part of a conditional sentence that expresses unreal, imaginary, or unlikely events in the past.
Here are some examples for you:
- If she had studied harder, she would have passed the exam.
- If we had left earlier, we would have caught the train.
- If they had invested in Bitcoin earlier, they would have made a lot of money.
- If he had exercised more, he would have been healthier.
- If the weather had been better, we would have gone to the beach.
- If he hadn't missed the flight, he would have arrived on time.
- If they hadn't spent all their money, they would have been able to go on vacation.
- If she hadn't been so careless, she wouldn't have lost her phone.
- If we hadn't been stuck in traffic, we would have arrived on time.
- If the restaurant hadn't been closed, we would have had dinner there.
- What would you have done if you had won the lottery?
- Where would you have gone if you had taken a gap year after college?
- Would he have passed the exam if he had studied harder?
- What would they have done differently if they had known the outcome?
- If you had a time machine, where would you have travelled to?
Let’s now have a look at four advanced points on how we use the past perfect.
English Past perfect: 4 advanced points
1. Past Perfect With Time Conjunctions
You typically don’t use the English past perfect when you use time conjunctions (e.g. after, as soon as, once, when) to indicate the sequence of events.
- After I finished my homework, I watched TV. (NOT After I
hadfinished my homework, I watched TV.
- As soon as she arrived at the airport, she realised she had forgotten her passport. (NOT As soon as she
hadarrived at the airport, she realised she had forgotten her passport.)
- Once he ate breakfast, he left for work.
- When they arrived at the movie, the movie had already started.
- After they finished the project, they submitted it to their supervisor.
2. Past Perfect With “It Was The First / Second…That…”
You often use the past perfect after “it was the first / second…that…”
- It was the first time I had ever flown on a plane, and I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect, but as soon as we took off, I realised it wasn't so bad.
- It was the second time she had been to New York City, and she was excited to explore more of the city than she had on her first visit.
- It was the third time he had failed the driving test, and he was starting to lose hope. He had studied hard and thought he had done well, but once again, he didn't pass.
As you can see, in each of these examples, the past perfect is used to indicate that the action or event had happened before the specific moment in time that we are referring to (the first, second, or third time).
3. The Contraction “ ‘d” With English Past Perfect
The contraction “‘d” can be used with the past perfect tense to represent “had”. This is often used in informal speech or writing.
- She’d already left by the time I got there.
- I'd already finished my homework before my friends came over.
- They'd never seen such a beautiful sunset before.
- He'd lived in London for five years before moving to New York.
If you want to learn more about how to use contractions in English, here’s a useful guide to English contractions.
4. Past Perfect For Duration
You use the English past perfect to say how long something had continued up to a past moment.
- He had loved her for as long as he could remember, but she never felt the same way.
- They had owned that house for twenty years before they decided to sell it.
- We had been friends since childhood, but we drifted apart in our adult years.
- She had believed in ghosts for as long as she could remember, but she had never actually seen one.
- I had known her for ten years before she moved away.
In each of these examples, the past perfect is used to indicate the duration of an action or state that started in the past and continued up until a specific past moment or event.
At this point, you may be wondering what difference there is between the past perfect and the present perfect.
Let’s find out.
Past Perfect Or Present Perfect? What’s The Difference?
The past perfect and the present perfect might make you feel confused.
But don’t worry.
All you need to know is that while the past perfect describes a completed past action before another past action, the present perfect tense describes a completed action with a connection to the present.
Check out this complete guide on the present perfect too if you want to learn more about it.
Mastering The English Past Perfect
So, here you are! You've reached the end of another grammar guide. Did you find it useful? I hope so!
What’s the best thing to do now?
Well, you have seen many examples of the English past perfect. So now it would be a great idea to try to notice it while watching a movie, listening to music, reading books in English, or conversing in English.
This is how you will reinforce and consolidate everything you have learned in this blog post.
In other words, you should try to learn the past perfect in context. You may say, “But where can I find the English past perfect?”
Good question! I’m pleased to tell you that because this verb tense is used to narrate events and talk about the past, the best place to find it is in stories.
So why not use the StoryLearning method to learn it?
You’ll meet the past perfect in engaging short stories in English that will help you learn and assimilate it.
It would be…perfect!