Past Perfect

Basic form

Subject + HAD + Verb (past participle form)

Quick examples

  • I had written the letter before you came home.
  • If she had studied hard, she would have passed the English language exam.
  • I wish I had been brave enough.
  • Mary looked as if she had not slept for 48 hours.

We use the Past Perfect tense to emphasize that an action in the past finished before another action in the past started. This tense is also used in reported speech, third conditional sentences, or to show dissatisfaction with the past.

Use

  1. Completed action before another action in the past
  2. Third conditional sentences
  3. Reported speech
  4. Dissatisfaction with the past

Use 1: A completed action before another action in the past

The first use of this tense is to emphasize that one action in the past happened before another action in the past.

  • I had finished my homework before I went playing football.
  • John had never been to London before we went there last year.
Good to know
People (especially native speakers) do not use the Past Perfect in above sentences very often. For example, they will say:
  • After I washed my car, I went to fill up.

Rather than:

  • After I had washed my car, I went to fill up.

This is because "after" and "before" tell the listener which action happened first. Still, keep in mind that it is better to use the Past Perfect, especially in written English or when writing exams.


To understand this use better, watch this interactive animation:


Sorry, you need to install flash to see this content.
My son Julius had never seen a camel before we went together to the zoo in summer 1990.

Explanation

In this cartoon, you can see a man who says: "My son, Julius, had never seen a camel, before we went together to the Zoo in summer 1990 ".

  • Why is the Past Perfect used in this example? Click on the button labled "event 1". The father asks his son, Julius, the following question: "Have you ever seen a camel?". Julis replies that he has never seen it. In the next scene, they are in the Zoo, watching the animal. Notice that the event 1 occured before event 2. It means that the use of Past Perfect is correct here.

Use 2: Third conditional

Use the Past Perfect with third conditional sentences.

  • If we had gone by taxi, we wouldn't have been late.
  • If Mary had studied harder, she would have passed the exam.

This use is the so-called hypothetical past: we are talking about things that never happened.

  • I wish I had fixed my umberella. (but I didn't)
  • If only I had known the answer to that question. (but I didn't)

Use 3: Reported speech

Use the Past Perfect with sentences in reported speech.

  • Mary said she had already seen this film.
  • He asked if I had read Harry Potter.

Use 4: Dissatisfaction with the Past

We often use the Past Perfect to show our dissatisfaction with the past. Such sentences typically start with "I wish ..." or "If only ...".

  • I wish I had taken more food. I'm hungry now.
  • If only I had taken more food. I'm hungry now.
The Past Perfect is also used with expressions such as "as if" and "as though":
  • John looked as if he had done something terrible.
  • She looked as though she hadn't slept all night.

Form

To form a sentence in the Past Perfect, what you need is:

  1. The proper conjugation of the auxiliary verb "to have" in the past form.
  2. The Past Participle of your verb.

1. Auxiliary verb "to have"

The past form of the auxiliary verb "to have" is "had":

  • Mary had finished her homework before Mike came home.
  • Mary has finished her homework before Mike came home.
  • Mary hads finished her homework before Mike came home.

2. The Past Participle

The past participle of a verb is a verb form that appears with the perfect tenses. The past participle can be either regular or irregular.

  • The regular verbs are formed by adding "-ed" to the verb:
    VerbPast Participle
    talktalked
    explainexplained
    useused
    deliverdelivered
    includeincluded
    achieveachieved
  • The formation of the irregular verbs does not follow one rule. Therefore, they should be memorized.

    VerbPast ParticipleLearn more
    bebeenbe
    becomebecomebecome
    seeseensee
    gogonego
    eateateneat
    growgrowngrow

Positive Sentences

Subject+HAD+Verb (past participle form)
e.g. he, she, a dog, etc.e.g. gone, taken, done, etc.
ExamplesUse (click to read)
Before I went to the park, I had finished my work.1
If he had made the right choice, he wouldn't be unhappy now.2
Mary said she had already seen this movie before.3
I wish I had had enough courage to kiss her!4

Questions

HAD+Subject+Verb (past participle form)
e.g. he, she, a dog, etc.e.g. gone, taken, done, etc.
ExamplesUse (click to read)
Had she eaten the dinner before she went to the cinema?1

Negative Sentences

Subject+HADN'T+Verb (past participle form)
e.g. he, she, a dog, etc.e.g. gone, taken, done, etc.
ExamplesUse (click to read)
I had not seen this movie before we went to the cinema yesterday to see it.1
If he hadn't made the mistake, he would be happy now.2
Mary said she had not visited her father for a long time.3
I wish I hadn't done it!4

Check your understanding!