The past perfect is a tricky tense. Before we even delve into it, we should get a sense of what it looks like.
Just as the present perfect tense used a participle after an initial verb (has + participle) so too does the past perfect. Instead of have/has, the past perfect simply uses had:
Before he learned to read and write, Horace had listened to audio books.
Beginning in 1990, he had lived abroad but returned for good in 1995.
The earth had at one point been covered by oceans of fire before life finally found a toehold.
I like to think of the past perfect as the “past past” tense. The reason is that it describes two events that happened in the past, one that happened before the other. The event that happened first takes the past perfect tense or the “had + participle”.
The event that takes place second will always be in the simple past tense.
Before he learned to read and write, Horace had listened to audio books. Until Horace learned to read and write, he could only listen to audio books. That listening happens first. Therefore, it is in the past perfect tense.
Beginning in 1990, he had lived abroad but returned for good in 1995. He stopped living abroad at some time in the past. After that he returned. Since the returning, which is in simple past, happened more recently, the living will be in the past perfect tense.
The earth had at one point been covered by oceans of fire before things cooled down significantly and life finally found a toehold. This one makes logical sense. There was no way life could have arisen in a lake of fire. Therefore, the fact that Earth was covered by oceans of fire must have happened before life arose. So if “things cooled down” and “life finally found a toehold” are in the simple past tense, we know that “cover” must be in the past perfect tense: “had been covered”.
On the SAT, you’ll likely only be tested on this at the most basic level. They are not going to ask you to choose between the past perfect (had lived) and the past continuous (had been living). Rather, you’ll likely get a question that mixes the past perfect (had lived) with the present (lives), which is wrong. Or confuses the past perfect and the present perfect:
Wrong: He have lived in South America for ten years, before moving to the U.S.
Right: He had lived in South America for ten years, before moving to the U.S.
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About Chris Lele
Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 10 million views. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog! You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!
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