What Is The Past Perfect Tense And How Do You Use It?

past perfect tense

The past perfect tense is very useful in writing. We use it to show that an action occurred before another action in the past.

It is a tense that concisely creates order without using time clause expressions like, and then or afterward.

Although it is a perfect tense because it uses the auxiliary, had, it has no relationship at all with the present perfect tense.

The best feature of past perfect, which is sometimes called pluperfect, is that it is super easy to use for any writer.

Advertisements

 

The past perfect simple structure

Because it uses the auxiliary had for both singular and plural subjects, the tense is easy to construct.

For all uses, you use had + the past participle of the main verb.

I had worked

She had waited

We had driven

You had tried

For negative sentences, negate the auxiliary verb.

I hadn’t tried

They hadn’t invited

It hadn’t succeeded

He hadn’t driven

For the question form, you invert the auxiliary verb and subject.

Had they forgotten?

Had you lost?

Advertisements

Had he stopped?

Had it rained?

 

How do you use past perfect tense?

The past perfect is the part of a sentence that says something happened before another action.

The second action mostly uses the past simple.

However, the order of the sentence doesn’t change the order of events.

Past Perfect and Past Simple

You can use the past simple before or after the past perfect.

 

Look at the following past perfect tense examples.

After I had written my story, I gave it to my editor.

I gave my story to my editor after I had written it.

In both sentences, it is clear that the subject wrote the story and then gave it to the editor.

 

When you want to indicate a specific time between events, you can add a time clause.

It can be a short time or a long time.

They had arrived only a few minutes before we did.

She had been out of work for two years before she found a new job.

 

Past perfect continuous

We use the continuous form to express an ongoing action before a later action.

The structure is had been + present participle.

We had been waiting for two hours before the train finally arrived.

I had been working there for only two months before the company went broke.

Her fitness improved because she had been training hard after her injury.

 

Traps to avoid

The most common error is when there is no second clause or finisher to a sentence.

We had painted the house. Incorrect

This sentence doesn’t make sense because we don’t have the extra information about why or when.

We had painted the house two weeks before we moved in. Correct

You always need a second clause, but it doesn’t need to be explicit using a simple past phrase.

They had left. Incorrect

They had left a few minutes before us. Correct

The easiest way to be right all the time is to make sure there is a “something else happened” clause in your past perfect sentence.

 

Extended use of the past perfect

It is possible to remove the second repeated subject and linking words, including before and after by using the gerund form.

Although the gerund is sometimes considered weak in writing, it does have some worthwhile uses. The gerund, having, replaces the first subject.

Look at these examples to see how you can make your sentences more concise.

He had waited for three hours before his flight finally departed for London.

Having waited for three hours, his flight finally departed for London.

After I had started my new job, I felt more financially secure.

Having started my new job, I felt more financially secure.

 

Had had sentences

When we use the verb have in a past perfect sentence, it creates what is called a had had sentence.

Often, we use contraction to lessen the harshness of the phrase.

After I had had three serves, I was extremely full!

After I’d had three serves, I was extremely full!

But there are situations where there can be a quadruple occurrence as in this famous expression.

All the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life.

It’s a mouthful, but it is grammatically correct.

 

Summary

The past perfect tense is one of the easiest to learn how to use in your writing.

You are not going to use it a lot. But it is a great tool to have on hand for sequencing in fiction writing.

For article writing, you can use it for cause and effect situations like finding a fault in a product after it had been launched.

As with all structures, don’t overuse it. But it gives you a way to add variety to your writing.

 

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent teaching English and writing, as well as testing and taming new technology.

5 thoughts on “What Is The Past Perfect Tense And How Do You Use It?

  • April 26, 2020 at 1:47 am
    Permalink

    Thank you for your clear and concise examples.

    Reply
  • April 26, 2020 at 12:25 am
    Permalink

    Thanks for a very useful post. I appreciate your good examples. I will be posting the link on my blog.

    Reply
  • April 25, 2020 at 5:52 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you very much for the usefull posting. Have a beautiful weekend. Michael

    Reply
  • April 25, 2020 at 3:28 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks for that. You refer to the simple past tense in this article. When I was at school we were taught it was called the imperfect tense. Is this an American way of refering to this tense, or has it changed in the many years since I went to school?

    Reply
    • April 25, 2020 at 3:45 pm
      Permalink

      I’m not sure it’s a US or UK change in titles. When I was at school, the simple past was called the preterite. The past perfect was the imperfect for me too. Who uses these words now? I think it is just part of a continuing trend to modernize English grammar. One of my favorite grammarians, Michael Swan, avoids using terms like the gerund and present participle. He calls them all, ing words. Now that is simplifying.

      Reply

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.