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The best writers are able to make themselves understood no matter how complicated the chronology of events is.

This is usually because they have a strong grasp of when to use which verb tense, making their writing smooth and fluid. 

Understanding how the tenses work goes a long way in making your writing clear and more seamless.

Tenses tell us when something happened. In school, you started off learning about the simple past, present, and future tenses, which refer to actions that happened in the stated time period. 

What Is the Past Perfect Tense? 

The past perfect tense is also known as the pluperfect tense or “the past of the past.” This is because one easy way to determine if you need that past perfect tense is that it refers to something that happened in the past before another event in the past. 

This diagram will help you visualize when the past perfect tense happens in relation to simple past and the present:

What Is the Difference Between Past Tense and Past Perfect Tense? 

To review, the simple past tells about an event that occurred in the past. Using the simple past, for example, you can still tell the chronology of certain events, such as in the example below: 

First, I ate an apple and a salad for lunch. Then my friend Sarah came up to me. Then she told me the news about her brother running away from home. I hugged her and she cried on my shoulder. Then we went home to find her mother. 

But as you can see, the sentences are dry and monotonous. Instead, when you learn how to move up from using only the simple past tense, you will be able to tell the same information in less time but in a more interesting way: 

I was eating a salad when my friend Sarah came and told me her brother had run away from home. 

From the example above, the words in bold (“I was eating a salad”) use the past progressive tense, while the underlined words in bold (“her brother had run away”) uses the past perfect tense. 

Using the past progressive and past perfect tenses instead of relying only on simple past makes the sentences come alive. 

How to Use the Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense is formed by using the past tense of “has / have,” which is “had” + the past participle of the verb. 

For example: 

  • I + had + seen (past participle of see)
  • He + had + spoken (past participle of speak)
  • She + had + been (past participle of be)

You can use the past perfect tense in the following cases: 

1. To describe an event that finished before another event occurred. 

Note that the event needs to have finished before the second past event. If the first event was still happening when the second event occurred, you need to use the past progressive tense. 

Example

Take a look at the scenario below where we have several events that happened in the past: 

  1. Mommy woke up at 5:00a.m. and had coffee and some journaling time. 
  2. The baby woke up at 7:00 a.m., and Mommy fed her. 
  3. Mommy then cooked pancakes at 8:00 a.m. 
  4. Daddy and Jimmy came down and had breakfast at 8:30 a.m. 
  5. Anna, the neighbor, came by with a plate of cookies at 10:00a.m. 

So we can use the past perfect tense to show one event that happened before another, as in the following sentences: 

  • The baby had woken up before Daddy and Jimmy came down for breakfast. 
  • Mommy had already had her coffee and journaling time before the baby woke up.
  • Mommy had already fed the baby before she cooked pancakes for breakfast. 
  • The family had already had breakfast when Anna came by with a plate of cookies. 

2. To describe an event that finished before a given time in the past. 

When you are talking about events that happened before a specific time, you can use the past perfect tense. 

For example: 

  • He had run 10 miles by 6:00a.m. 
  • By the time lunch rolled around, he had already downed a large chocolate milkshake and half a dozen doughnuts. 
  • For once, all the students had arrived in the classroom before the 9:00a.m. bell. 

3. To show a conditional event and its result. 

You can also use the past perfect tense to express an “if” clause. For example: 

  • If only she had known about his abusive tendencies, she probably wouldn’t have married him. 
  • If Grandpa John had not stayed up late the night before, he might’ve woken up when the burglars were breaking in his house. 
  • If it hadn’t rained this morning, we could’ve gone to the beach. 

Past Perfect Tense Quiz: 

Test your knowledge with this past perfect tense quiz PDF by circling the correct verb in the brackets. 

  1. The thief [ran away / had run away] by the time the police arrived. 
  2. The fire [had gotten / got] out of control when the firetruck drove up. 
  3. The teacher told the class about how she [had gone / went] to Europe the summer before. 
  4. By the time Mom called them for dinner, the children [had gotten / got] themselves into half a dozen scrapes. 
  5. When her parents finally [had gotten / got] a divorce, she had already resigned herself to it. 
  6. If he [had given / gave] more effort in studying for the test, he probably would’ve passed. 
  7. He [had run / run] only a half-marathon before joining the Boston Marathon.
  8. As a child, she [had learned / learned] to paint before she learned to draw. 
  9. Mr. Morrison had invested a lot of money in the stock market right before it [had crashed / crashed] in 2008. 
  10. The baby [had learned / learned] to climb onto things before he even learned to walk. 

Answer Key: 

  1. The thief had run away by the time the police arrived. 
  2. The fire had gotten out of control when the firetruck drove up. 
  3. The teacher told the class about how she had gone to Europe the summer before. 
  4. By the time Mom called them for dinner, the children had gotten themselves into half a dozen scrapes. 
  5. When her parents finally got a divorce, she had already resigned herself to it. 
  6. If he had given more effort in studying for the test, he probably would’ve passed. 
  7. He had run only a half-marathon before joining the Boston Marathon.
  8. As a child, she had learned to paint before she learned to draw. 
  9. Mr. Morrison had invested a lot of money in the stock market right before it crashed in 2008. 
  10. The baby had learned to climb onto things before he even learned to walk. 

Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense is usually the best way to convey an event that happened before another event in the past. Continue to study the other important tenses so you can express your thoughts more coherently and clearly.

The more you practice, the more comfortable you will get at using the different tenses. Slowly but surely you will see your writing improve, and you will reap the benefits down the road! 

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