Past Perfect Tense Overview

Past Perfect Tense - Lesson #1

The past perfect is not used a lot for casual English speaking. We are more likely to see and use it in formal writing.

First, let's see how we use the past perfect.

1. We use the past perfect to emphasize what action or event happened first.
  • I had eaten when they came.
    (1st – I ate; 2nd – They came)

  • She couldn't sleep because she had watched a scary movie.
    (1st- Watched movie 2nd - She couldn't sleep)
The reason that we do not use it a lot when speaking is that there are many easier ways to express the same ideas or you do not need to clarify what happened first because people can naturally understand.
  • I had eaten when they came.
  • I ate before they came.
  • They came after I ate.

  • She couldn't sleep because she had watched a scary movie.
  • She couldn't sleep because she watched a scary movie.
  • She watched a scary movie, so she couldn't sleep.
  • She couldn't sleep after she watched a scary movie.
Sometimes, the past perfect can be useful in clarifying what started first.
  • I arrived when it started to rain.
    (Which happened first? Did they happen at the same time?)
But if we say it like this, then it is very clear.
  • I had arrived when it started to rain.
    (1st – I arrived; 2nd – Rain)

  • I arrived when it had started to rain.
    (1st – Rain; 2nd – I arrived)
2. We can also the past perfect to show that something happened before a specific time.
  • He had finished all his work before 5 o'clock.
  • They had already gotten married by the time I met her.
  • I had fallen asleep before the movie started.
3. We can also use it in reported speech.
  • He said that he had been there many times.
  • Our boss asked us if we had finished our work.
4. We can also use the past perfect to show that we are unhappy or dissatisfied with the past.
  • I wish I had studied English when I was young.
  • They wish they had not broken up.
It is true that the past perfect is not used a lot, but if we want to be fluent English speakers, then we should spend a little time learning the past perfect.

It is very easy to make the past perfect if you already know the present perfect. All you need to do is change the verbs "have/has" to the past tense which is "had".

Subject + had + past participle…

The past participles are exactly the same as the present perfect.
  • I had met her one time before you introduced us at the party.
  • The train had left by the time we got to the station.
  • She had written the report before she heard that information.
We can make negative sentences with "not" or "never".
  • I had never met him before the party.
  • She had not finished by the time they came.
  • They hadn't visited us for 5 years, but they are here now.
We can also make yes/no questions.

Had + subject + past participle…?
  • Had you met her before the conference?
  • Had he been here when we arrived?
  • Had he already finished when we were still planning?
And we can use question words.

Question Words + had + subject + past participle…?
  • What had he studied before he graduated?
  • Where had he gone before he came home?
  • Where had she worked before she joined our company?
We can make a contraction using pronouns and had. Be careful because this is the same contraction as "would".

I had I'dI would I'd
She had She'dShe would She'd

But we can tell the difference easily. "Had" is followed by a past participle and "would" is followed by a regular verb.
  • I'd finished my work before 8.
    (=I had finished my work before 8.)

  • I'd go if I could.
    (=I would go if I could.)
If you want to get more practice, then go to the next lessons and we will look at the past perfect in more detail.