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How to Use the Past Perfect Tense and Example Sentences

The past perfect is a verb tense that shows that action took place in the past before another moment.

Beth Taylor
Beth Taylor

Past perfect tense definition

The best way to understand when to use the past perfect tense is to think of it as the tense we use for talking about the past before the past. Allow me to elaborate: the past perfect is a verb tense that shows that action took place in the past before another moment.

A sentence containing the past ideal tense must also include a different past tense, usually the past simple. Using a combination of two tenses shows that both actions were in the past and informs us which action happened first.

Another name for the past perfect is the pluperfect.

The formula of the past perfect tense

💡
Subject + had + past participle

The past perfect tense is made up of the auxiliary verb “to have” in the past simple form, which is always “had,” no matter the subject, followed by the past participle of a verb.

What is a past participle?

When learning English as a foreign language, students are often taught irregular verbs using a table with three columns. Perfect tenses use the third column: the past participle.

We add “-ed” to the end of any regular verb to form the past participle, which is identical to the past simple form.

I walked back to the store where I had dropped my backpack the previous day.

Irregular verbs have different past participles, which must be learned by heart.

We went to Sophie’s house, but she had already left.

Past perfect tense rules

Negative sentences

💡
Subject + had + not + past participle

For negative sentences, we simply add the negation “not” to the auxiliary, which in this case is “had.” We can also use the contracted form “n’t.”

I hadn’t met him before he started working with me.
They had not yet decided which movie to watch when they arrived at the movie theater.
He tried to call us, but we had turned on airplane mode as soon as we boarded the plane.

Interrogative sentences

💡
Had + subject + past participle

To formulate questions, we take the auxiliary “had,” followed by the subject and then the past participle of the verb.

To respond to a question in the past perfect tense, we can simply say “yes” or “no,” or we can add more to the answer by using one of the following formulas:

💡
yes + subject + had
no + subject + had not
- Had he ever worked at a publishing house before he got the job as a book editor?
- No, he hadn’t.
- Had they been stuck at the mall all day before you drove them home?
- Yes, they had.
- Had you heard about the prize money before you joined the search party?
- No, I hadn’t. I just wanted to help.
- Had he already cut his hair when you saw him?
- Yes, he had. I thought it suited him.

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Examples of the past perfect tense

Here’s a past-tense sentence:

I ate my sandwich.

The action that preceded it must use the past perfect tense:

I had already finished my sandwich when the doorbell rang.
When the doorbell rang, I had already finished my sandwich.

The action that took place first can appear in either the first or second part of the sentence. The order in writing is not important. What matters is the tense that shows the order of events.

I went outside and saw that my parents had gone to the store without me.
Joanna had worked tirelessly for over a decade when she finally got a promotion.
It wasn't until I left the house that I realized my flight was open.
They had heard the commotion upon entering the building but didn’t see the police officers until they reached the second floor.
Jeffrey knew that Emily had stolen his jacket.
Only when I recognized the waiter did I remember that I had been to the restaurant before.
By the time the taxi pulled up, Luke had finished listening to his podcast.
I was soaking wet because it had rained all the way home.

What is the past perfect tense?

In summary, the past perfect is a verb tense used when one action happens before another in the past. It is used to emphasize the order of events, specifically the fact that one action occurred before the other.

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Beth Taylor

Hello! My name is Beth. I'm from France. I'm a French and English native speaker and I really like writing.


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Beth Taylor

Hello! My name is Beth. I'm from France. I'm a French and English native speaker and I really like writing.