Past Perfect Tense: How and When to Use It

A chalk board printed with different tenses for the verb "Play"

Today, we’re going over how to form the past perfect tense and when to use it. For your reference, we’re including examples and several tables, so be sure to bookmark this page if you’re having trouble with this tense.

For resources on all 12 verb tenses, visit our main article on verb tenses.

Forming the Past Perfect Tense

Quick Reference Table: The Past Perfect Tense in All forms

 

KEY

V3 → The third form (Past Participle) of an irregular verb

Ved → Past Participle form for regular verbs

Forms Formula
+ Had + Ved/V3

I had worked yesterday before it happened.

? Had + subject + Ved/V3

Had you worked before the incident?

Had + not + V3

I had not worked recently. Then they scheduled too many hours.

The formula for writing the past perfect tense is: had + past participle.

In most situations, you’ll form the past participle of a verb by adding -ed or -d to the end, but there are many irregular verbs in English.

Examples:

  • If I had talked to her before she left, we may not be in this situation.
  • After my recital, I saw my parents had taken a lot of pictures.
  • When the chaos settled, we noticed the man had stolen a hundred dollars from the register.

Making It Negative

To put the past perfect tense in a negative form, use this formula: Had + not + the past participle. The contraction hadn’t is often used in this case.

Examples

  • You hadn’t studied hair styling before you went to beauty school.
  • I hadn’t been to Florida before I visited Miami last year.
  • We hadn’t heard anything until she started screaming.

Asking a Question

When asking a question in the past perfect, use the formula: Had + subject + past participle

Examples:

  • Had you seen the movie before we went last week?
  • Had you studied French before you went to Paris?

When To Apply the Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense isn’t used as often as other tenses in casual conversation unless you constantly talk about past events. However, you could hear it a lot in a courtroom or arbitration.

Use #1

When describing something that happened before a certain point in the past.

Examples:

  • I couldn’t get through customs because I had lost my passport.
  • Jerry was so upset at the time because he had lost his dog.
  • She had not seen the documents because she was still in Mexico at the time.
  • He had walked in that area many times before they destroyed the path.

Use #2

When speaking about something that happened with duration before something else that happened in the past.

Typically, you’ll use non-continuous verbs with this usage, but there are exceptions.

Examples:

  • Dad had used that lawnmower for 15 years before it finally broke down.
  • They had feared the foreigners for decades until they finally sat down and had coffee together.
  • They didn’t want to upset their daughter with the news of the sale because they had owned the house for nearly 20 years.

**NOTE**

This note is in regard to specific time situations in the past perfect.

Unlike the present perfect tense, if you specify a time for an action, you can still use the past perfect tense. However, this usage isn’t common or even necessary in most situations.

Example:

  • She had traveled to Spain once back in 2004 before she decided to move there in 2017.

If the past perfect action happened at a specific moment in time, you could use either the simple past or the past perfect tense. Note that the word ‘before’ or ‘after’ is often used as a conjunction in these sentences.

  • She had traveled to Spain once back in 2004 before she decided to move there in 2017. – Correct
  • She traveled to Spain once back in 2004 before she decided to move there in 2017. –Correct

But, if you aren’t referring to a specific moment in time, don’t use the simple past. In this case, you would revert to the past perfect.

When Not to Apply the Past Perfect Tense

Answer: When you are NOT trying to make a sequence of events clear.

For example, if a friend asked you what you did after you found a large bag bag of money, he or she would be confused if you replied:

I had returned the bag to its owner.

When you use the past perfect, you imply that something happened next. But in this reply, there’s nothing else said about what happened after the bag was returned. You don’t always have to explicitly mention what else happened, but you need to make it clear through context.

In this example, there is no context, so the past perfect tense makes no sense.

The past perfect tense may not be used as often as other tenses, but it’s very helpful when you want to reflect or speak about events of the past. Can you think of any other uses of this tense? Leave us a comment below!

And, for more ESL resources and grammar topics visit the Magoosh Speaking Site.

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