English Grammar in Context – Tense Timelines, Mindmaps, Writing Tips, and More...

How to Use the Past Perfect Tense


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Learning to Use the Past Perfect Tense

The Past Perfect is an interesting tense, and it is another one of our tenses used for Combining Actions. Its Core Characteristic is to provide information about a second time period in the past. This is the past that happened before the event that is being narrated.  This time is known as Earlier Past.  The Past Perfect is a complex verb form and is generally only used when the speaker needs to ensure that his audience understands the sequence of events.  It is used for emphasis when we need to be clear about something that had happened at an earlier time.

The simplest way to tell a story is to start at the beginning and follow the story through in sequential order. However, sometimes this does not happen.  Sometimes the speaker wants to start in the middle, then jump to the beginning, then back to the middle and then to continue to story sequentially. (This might be more interesting for the listener.) When a narrator does this, he might need extra grammatical support to ensure that the audience understands the time sequences. This is usually when the speaker uses the Past Perfect.

I had finished my assignment by the time Jenny arrived

When you form a sentence using the Past Perfect, you would most likely follow it with words like 'when', 'by the time', or 'before' (although there are alternatives), before adding a second clause to talk about the next action (or event) which happened more recently than the first action.  The more recent action is described using Past Simple.

For example.  Take the sentence: I had finished my assignment [Action 1] by the time Jenny arrived [Action 2]. See Diagram 1:

Action 1: Past Perfect - Earlier Past

Action 2: Past Simple - a more recent event.


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In this example, the speaker is making it very clear that the assignment was finished before Jenny arrived. The speaker is creating the sense of two separate timeframes in the past and emphasising the fact that the assignment was completed at an earlier time than when Jenny arrived.


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