When to use Past Perfect
Past Perfect is mainly used when there are several timelines in a story or conversation. When comparing two events in the past, Past Perfect is used to express that one event happened before another event. Always use Past Perfect for the action that happened in the more distant past. For example,
I had studied English for 8 years when I met an English person for the first time.
Before I went to the supermarket, I had written a shopping list.
After I had surgery, I couldn’t walk for months.
Structure of Past Perfect Tense
Subject + had + Past Participle of Main Verb + Object
The auxiliary verb of perfect tenses is ‘to have’ which needs to be used in simple past form in past tense. ‘To have’ is always followed by the Past Participle of the main verb. Note that there are many verbs that have irregular simple past and past participle forms. Make sure to learn the most common ones. You can find a great list here.
Some examples for the structure:
My family had lived in England.
He had studied engineering at MIT.
The majority of immigrants had come from the south in those days.
Take a look at the following table to review how Past Perfect is formed:
Making the Past Perfect Tense negative
To create the negative form of a Past Perfect verb, you need to combine ‘not’ and the auxiliary verb ‘had’. The short form is ‘hadn’t. Remember to use the short forms in informal conversations and the long forms in a written, formal context.
Subject + had + not + Past Participle of Main Verb
He hadn’t been to the theater before.
I still haven’t read anything from the summer readings list.
Note that there are many verbs that have irregular simple past and past participle forms. Make sure to learn the most common ones from this list!
Yes/no questions in Past Perfect
Questions in Past Perfect are formed by switching the auxiliary verb ‘had’ and the subject. For example:
Had you lived in Scotland before you moved to Cambodia?
Had you renewed your membership before it expired?
Open-ended questions in Past Perfect
To form open-ended questions, simply put the question word to the beginning of the sentence. The word order folowing the question word remains tha same as in case of yes/no questions. For example:
How long had you lived there before you moved to Cambodia?
Who had you lived with before you moved in with your girlfriend?
Why had you gone to hospital before the holiday?
Signaling words of Past Perfect Tense
As Past Perfect is often comparing two actions in time, clauses are used to frame one of the actions in time, comparing it to another action. Typical perfect tense adverbs can be used, as well, but clauses are more frequent. These clauses are ‘when’, ‘before’ and ‘after’ as you can see them in the above-mentioned example.
Some common adverbs are:
Already, yet, since …., for … years/days/hours, this morning/afternoon/evening,
I had already been to the doctor, when she told me to go to the hospital.
I hadn’t been to the doctor, yet, when she told me to go to the hospital.
I’d had the same doctor for 10 years in New York before I moved to LA.
I had just found out about the test, when the class started.