It can be difficult for learners of English to know when to use the past perfect tense. It's basic function is to make it clear that one event happened before another in the past.
It's created by using:
had + past participle
They had eaten all the food
It's often used alongside the past simple. The example below illustrates why you would choose to use the past perfect in certain situations.
Imagine that you arrive at the office at 10am. John is already there and tells you he has been there since 9am.
So you think, "Oh, John has been here since 9am".
You use the Present Perfect at this point as it's something that started in the past but is still ongoing or relevant to the present (he's still there).
When you get home you want to tell your wife, so you say: "By the time I got to work this morning, John had been there for an hour already".
You are now talking about one event (John arriving at work) happening before another event (you arriving at work), and you are describing this whole scenario at a later time, so they are both past events.
Event 1 is the past perfect tense and event 2 is the past simple.
You should be able to see from this that the past perfect achieves two main things:
This can also be illustrated well in a time line:
These examples of the past perfect show you how it can be used to describe two events in the past, where one occurred before the other. You'll see that we can put the events in a different order but the first event always uses the past perfect.
To make past perfect sentences negative, we simply add 'not' after 'had':
And for yes/no questions, we use 'had + subject + past participle':
For other question words (e.g. why, when, how long), these are placed before 'had':
These are some common time expressions used with the past perfect. You'll commonly see these same time expressions with all the perfect tenses.
Note that when, before, after, by the time, and until are all conjunctions that make up complex sentences (adverbial clauses in this case) and the clauses can be placed in either order. For example:
The past perfect and past simple though are not only linked with these words, and can be linked with words such as 'because', 'that' and 'so'.
Another time when we use the past perfect is to make up one of the two clauses in the third conditional. The third conditional is used to imagine present or future situations that in reality are unlikely or impossible to happen.
It has two clauses joined together, in either order:
You'll note that this is still two events, with one happening before the other, even though the events didn't actually happen as they are imagined i.e. if we had taken the train (event 1 - taking the train) we'd have been there earlier (event 2 - arriving earlier).
We also use the past perfect to talk about regrets from the past using the word 'wish'.
When we do this we are referring to things that have already happened but we wish they'd happened in a different way. It is, then, similar to the way we can use it for the third conditional.
Often with the past perfect, we choose not to use it because the context or the words we are using with it make the sequence of events clear.
This is common with before and after, as those words themselves clarify which event came first. These were the two examples we looked at above:
The sequence of event in these two sentences is still clear by using the past simple in both clauses. So it's not wrong to use the past perfect with before and after for sequencing past events, but if it's clear without it, it may well not be used.
Another mistake when using the past perfect is using it when there is no sequence of events. Take a look at this example.
This is two past events but it doesn't involve one event happening before another - they happened at the same time. So it should be:
Another time when we use the past perfect is in narratives. In other words, telling stories.
It's used in storytelling to give background information but main narratives in the past are still mostly in the past simple tense. The past perfect can provide details of events that occurred before the main narrative.
Take a look at this example.
She had been to Spain before. She had lived there for 4 years and had played in a band while she was there. She had also made many friends during her time there.
She had been to Spain before. She lived there for 4 years and played in a band while she was there. She also made many friends during her time there.
It's not necessary to keep repeating the past perfect - it looks better with just the past simple. The skill of how much to use it can be complex but would become second nature as you get better at English rather than through analysing it.
Check out more on the past simple for building narratives.
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