Past Perfect Tense


I had sung

The past perfect tense is quite an easy tense to understand and to use. This tense talks about the "past in the past".


How do we make the Past Perfect Tense?

The structure of the past perfect tense is:

subject+auxiliary verb HAVE+main verb
 conjugated in simple past tense past participle

For negative sentences in the past perfect tense, we insert not between the auxiliary verb and main verb. For question sentences, we exchange the subject and auxiliary verb. Look at these example sentences with the past perfect tense:

 subjectauxiliary verb main verb 
+Ihad finishedmy work.
+Youhad stoppedbefore me.
-Shehadnotgoneto school.
?Hadyou arrived? 
?Hadthey eatendinner?

When speaking with the past perfect tense, we often contract the subject and auxiliary verb:

I hadI'd
you hadyou'd
he had
she had
it had
we hadwe'd
they hadthey'd
The 'd contraction is also used for the auxiliary verb would. For example, we'dcan mean:
  • We had
  • We would
But usually the main verb is in a different form, for example:
  • We had arrived (past participle)
  • We would arrive (base)
It is always clear from the context.

How do we use the Past Perfect Tense?


The past perfect tense expresses action in the past before another action in the past. This is the past in the past. For example:

  • The train left at 9am. We arrived at 9.15am. When we arrived, the train had left.
The train had left when we arrived.
Train leaves in past at 9am.  
9 9.15

We arrive in past at 9.15am.  

Look at some more examples:

  • I wasn't hungry. I had just eaten.
  • They were hungry. They had not eaten for five hours.
  • I didn't know who he was. I had never seen him before.
  • "Mary wasn't at home when I arrived."
    "Really? Where had she gone?"

You can sometimes think of the past perfect tense like the present perfect tense, but instead of the time being now the time is past.

past perfect tense present perfect tense
had |
done |
> |
    have |
done |
> |

pastnowfuture pastnowfuture

For example, imagine that you arrive at the station at 9.15am. The stationmaster says to you:

  • "You are too late. The train has left."

Later, you tell your friends:

  • "We were too late. The train had left."

We often use the past perfect tense in reported speech after verbs like said, told, asked, thought, wondered:

Look at these examples:

  • He told us that the train had left.
  • I thought I had met her before, but I was wrong.
  • He explained that he had closed the window because of the rain.
  • I wondered if I had been there before.
  • I asked them why they had not finished.