The past perfect is a verb form that we use to talk about an action that is complete before another action or event in the past.

It isn't one of the most common verb tenses in English (only about 1.2% of verbs in speech are in the past perfect), but it can be very important for narrating events in the past.

Chart for Past Perfect Tense in English

Using the Past Perfect Tense in English

Past Perfect Illustration

Perfect verb forms are generally used to show that an action or situation is complete before another action or a point in time. In the past perfect, that one action happened before another action in the past. For this reason, we sometimes say the past perfect is β€œthe past of the past.”

Here's an example:

Carla had already eaten when we arrived at her house.

There are two actions here: eating and arriving. Eat is in the past perfect, and arrive is in the simple past, so we know that the eating was completed first. When you have two verbs in a sentence, one in the simple past and one in the past perfect, the past perfect action finished before the simple past action.

The examples below illustrate the rules for how we generally use the past perfect tense.

Examples of the Past Perfect tense

First let's look at how we often use the past perfect in a sentence with other past tense verbs:

I had just left my house when it started to rain.

Notice that we have two clauses and two verbs. Started is in the simple past: it started and finished in the past. Left is in the past perfect (had left) which means that the action (leaving) was complete before the other action (starting to rain).

Sometimes there are two verbs in the same sentence, like in the example above, but not always. Look at this conversation:

Te: Hey, I called you last night, but you didn’t answer!
Banh: Oh, I went to bed pretty early last night. What time did you call?
Te: I think it was around 9.
Banh: Yeah, I had already fallen asleep.

In this example, the verb in the past perfect is had fallen asleep. We know that past perfect means this action was complete before another action or point in time in the past. In this case, we have both an action (Te called) and a time (around 9).

Table: Forming the Past Perfect

Forming the past perfect is easy. As shown in the table below, we use had (the past form of the helping verb have) and the perfect form of the main verb.

Past Perfect Tense Verb Conjugation
Singular Plural
1st person had worked. we  had worked.
2nd person you  had worked. you  had worked.
3rd person he  had worked. they  had worked.
she  had worked.
it  had worked.

Other Forms of the Past Perfect

Negative Sentences

The helping verb in the past perfect is always had.To make a negative, put not after the helping verb had.

I had not studied French before I went to Morocco.

They had not seen each other for years.

I hadn’t eaten all night so I was starving.

Questions

To make a question, put had before the subject.

Had they dated long before they got married?

Had you expected the promotion?

Why had she bought so many extra tickets?

How long had you lived in San Francisco by then?

Passive Voice

To make a passive sentence in the past perfect, use be in the past perfect (had been) and then the perfect form of the main verb.

By 1945, the war had been won.

I had been fired, so I felt really depressed.

In the morning we learned that Kiki had been found by the neighbors.


Signal Words

The past perfect is often used with time words such as before, until, previously, etc. One word that is very common (and sometimes confusing!) with the past perfect is by.

We can use by with a specific time to show the completion of the action before that time.

By 1:00, everyone had left the party.

In this example, all the people left before 1:00.

The time isn't always a number, as these examples illustrate:

By dawn the rain had stopped.

By the end of the semester, she had completed all her prerequisites.

By then, I had figured out the solution.

By the time has a similar meaning, but it is used with a clause describing another action, rather than a time.

By the time I got home, everyone had gone to bed.

It had gotten dark by the time we finished eating.


Check out these other free grammar resources:


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