How & When to Use Past Perfect Tense

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

The past perfect tense describes actions that happened in the past and were completed. This lesson will discuss the verb forms for this tense and how to tell it apart from other forms of past tense.

Tenses and Verbs

What does it mean for something to be in past tense? Well that's easy, right? It means it happens in the past, as in before right now. And simply put, that is what past tense signifies. A tense is a way of expressing a verb (the action part of a sentence) to indicate when that action happened, whether in the past, present, or future.

To distinguish between past and present, we typically use what are called participles, which mean the different forms the verb can take to show their tense. So the present participle for the verb 'walk' is either 'walk' or 'walks,' but the past participle is 'walked.' So, if it's happening right now:

  • Jan and Emily walk on the beach.

But if it happened yesterday:

  • Jan and Emily walked on the beach.

The past participle of most verbs involved putting an -ed ending on the present participle, but as with all English rules, there are many exceptions, or what are called irregular verbs that take a different past participle. So, if Jan and Emily were running on the beach right now, it looks like this:

  • Jan and Emily run on the beach.

But if they were running yesterday, we get:

  • Jan and Emily ran on the beach.

The Past Is Perfect

So tenses describe whether the action is happening in the past, right now, or in the future. Pretty easy, right? But it gets a little more complicated than that because each tense has different forms that can more precisely describe when an action happened and what else was happening. One of these is past perfect, which describes an event that happened in the past and was completed (or 'perfected,' get it?) by a certain point before something else happened.

Why would you want use this crazy form? Well consider this scenario. You are describing doing your homework last night:

  • I completed all of my homework last night.

Great! But now you're trying to explain to your teacher why, if you completed it, you don't have it:

  • I had completed all of my homework last night, but then my dog ate it.

Here, it becomes important to describe that you had done one action before something else happened. Unfortunately, your dog ate it after it had been completed!

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