Past perfect

The past perfect tense is used to say that one event happened prior to another. It is particularly useful for clarifying the order of events when it may otherwise be unclear.

We generally use the past perfect tense:

1. For events in non-chronological order (to clarify the order)
2. With time expressions such as ‘By + past time expression’ (e.g. ‘By the end of the night’, ‘By the time we left’, ‘By 1995’), ‘Prior to’ (e.g. ‘Prior to leaving’, ‘Prior to my arrival’), ‘Before’ (e.g. ‘Before I arrived’)

A potential learning pitfall is that students may begin to overuse this form in contexts where past simple is much more appropriate. Therefore, it is important that as educators we refer learners to the two general rules above for correct use.

For example: By the time their dad got home from work, the kids had eaten dinner.

ACTION 1  = kids ate dinner                               ACTION 2  = dad got home

Past perfect shows that both actions happened in the past, but the kids ate dinner before dad got home. As in this example, it is particularly useful when we talk about events in non-chronological order.

To form the past perfect, use had and the past participle of the verb (in this case eat becomes had eaten).

Past perfect is nearly always used in combination with another verb expressing a past action (often past simple). This makes it extremely valuable for narrative techniques such as retelling a story. However, to a certain extent, the combination of past perfect and past simple (and other tense forms) is dependent on the event the speaker/writer uses as a starting point for their recollection.

For a more visual description on the past perfect tense, and for examples from the Fortune drama series (Gold level), don’t forget to click on the video link below: