Grammar Past Perfect Tense |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Past Perfect Tense

The English language uses tense to communicate the timing of an action. If we want to write that an action took place in the past, we use the simple past tense: He washed the dishes. She went to the skating rink. 

If we wish to identify an action that occurred prior to another completed action, we use the past perfect tense. The past perfect clarifies for readers that one action finished before another one started.

Example

Vic had already done 200 push-ups by the time Renaldo arrived at the gym.

In this sentence, the simple past tense verb arrived tells us an action took place in the past. Even before that action, however, another one occurred: Vic performed 200 push-ups. The presence of the past perfect tense verb had done informs us of the sequence of the actions.

Forming the Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense is formed with the past-tense auxiliary verb had plus the past participle of a verb. This formula remains the same whether the subject is singular or plural.

Verb Subject Auxiliary Past Participle  
chase I had chased I had chased
draw you had drawn you had drawn
limit we had limited we had limited
walk they had walked they had walked

The subject and the auxiliary of the past perfect also can be contracted:

I had chased > I’d chased

you had drawn > you’d drawn

we had limited > we’d limited

they had walked > they’d walked

To form the negative of the past perfect tense, we simply insert the word not between the auxiliary and the past participle. This formula remains the same whether the subject is singular or plural.

Verb Subject Auxiliary Negative Past Participle  
chase I had not chased I had not chased
draw you had not drawn you had not drawn
limit we had not limited we had not limited
walk they had not walked they had not walked

The auxiliary and the negative word also can be contracted:

I had not chased > I hadn’t chased

you had not drawn > you hadn’t drawn

we had not limited > we hadn’t limited

they had not walked > they hadn’t walked

To ask a question in the past perfect tense, we would use one of the following two forms:

Had + subject + verb
Had Jermaine left before Bryan tapped the keg?

Question word + had + subject + verb
How had she applied the coat of primer before she started painting?

The Past Perfect: Passive Voice

The passive voice of the past perfect tense is formed with the past-tense auxiliary verb had, the past participle of be (been), and the past participle of a verb.

Verb Subject Auxiliary Past Part. Be Past Part. Verb  
chase I had been chased I had been chased
draw you had been drawn you had been drawn
limit we had been limited we had been limited
walk they had been walked they had been walked

The Past Perfect in the Conditional Tense

The past perfect is also used in Type 3 and Mixed Conditional sentences.

Type 3 Conditional: Refers to a situation that didn’t take place and its possible result at a former time. The “if” clause includes the past perfect, and the main clause uses the perfect conditional or the perfect continuous conditional: If you had attended class more often, you would have received a better grade.

Mixed Conditional: Conveys a former time with a situation that extends into the present; it combines an unreal past or present condition with an unreal past or present result. The “if” clause includes the past perfect or the simple past, and the main clause uses the present conditional or the perfect conditional: If Jeremiah had shopped online rather than go the mall, he would not know Tracy, whom he met there.

When Not to Use the Past Perfect

The past perfect might sometimes be used in a sentence with a finished action that may have transpired either more than once or over time.

Examples

Regina had dreamed of becoming an Olympic gymnast.

A curious child, Benedict had asked his elders many questions.

Looking at these statements alone, we do not know what other action each past perfect verb preceded. If the other action is clear in the context or appears in another proximate sentence, this use of the past perfect is acceptable.

We would not use the past perfect tense if we are not establishing a sequence of events either within a sentence or in an understood context. For example, if you found a fifty-dollar bill on the sidewalk and someone asked you what you did with it, imagine if you answered only:

I had picked it up.

You would have suspended that person’s understanding because the past perfect communicates that your picking up the bill took place before you did something else, but you did not divulge to the person what that other action was. In this exchange, you would have been clearer with the simple past tense:

I picked it up.

Related Topics

Present Perfect Tense
What Is a Past Participle?

Pop Quiz

The following sentences include two verbs in parentheses. One verb should be in the simple past tense, and one should be in the past perfect tense. Conjugate each verb according to its proper sequence.

1. By the time the package (arrive), I (learn) what it contained.

2. I (see) the movie before I (read) the review.

3. The order (change), but the shipment already (leave) the warehouse.

4. I (wish) I (wait) longer.

5. Abayomi (be) there previously, but she (remember) only a few things about it.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. By the time the package arrived, I had learned what it contained.

2. I had seen the movie before I read the review.

3. The order changed, but the shipment already had left the warehouse.

4. I wished I had waited longer.

5. Abayomi had been there previously, but she remembered only a few things about it.

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