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What is Past Perfect Tense? - Definition & Examples

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Instructor: David Boyles

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

Actions that occurred in the past and ended at a specific point are described using the past perfect tense. Explore the definition and difference between simple past and past perfect tense, how to form the past perfect through some examples, and learn some tips. Updated: 12/22/2021

Simple Past & Past Perfect

What is past perfect tense? Like the other perfect tenses, present perfect and future perfect, this tense confuses a lot of people. So, let's break it down. We'll start with what it's not, by distinguishing it from simple past tense.

As you probably know, past tense refers to events that happen in the past. Simple past is its most basic form:

  • John jumped over the fence.
  • John played baseball yesterday.

In this sentence, the verb 'jumped' is in its simple past form. For regular verbs like 'jump,' the simple past is just the root form of the verb with -ed on the end.

However, there are many irregular verbs that take different forms for the simple past. A few examples are 'throw,' 'ran,' 'build,' and 'swim:'

  • John threw the ball over the fence.
  • John ran down the street.
  • John built a tower of bricks.
  • John swam five laps in the pool.

So, simple past describes events in the past. But, past perfect is a more specific type of past tense that describes an event that happened in the past, but then ends at a certain point, like this:

  • John had played baseball for five years until he injured his knee.
  • John had jumped over ten hurdles in a row before falling down.

Because the action stopped, the verb is expressed in past perfect instead of simple past.

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Coming up next: What is Past Progressive Tense? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Simple Past & Past Perfect
  • 1:25 How to Form the Past Perfect
  • 2:37 Tips for Past Perfect Tense
  • 3:08 Lesson Summary
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How To Form the Past Perfect

So, when you have a situation like this, how do you form the past perfect? The first thing you do is add the helping verb 'had.' The second thing you do is put the verb in its past participle form:

  • John had played baseball for five years until he injured his knee.
  • John had jumped over ten hurdles in a row before falling down.

'But wait,' you're saying, 'I thought the root verb with an -ed was the simple past form of the verb. What's this past participle business?'

Good question. Past participles are confusing, partly because, for regular verbs, they're the exact same word. For all regular verbs, the simple past and past participle are both formed by adding -ed to the end.

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