Past Perfect Tense

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,

Some examples:
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.


Overview of English Verb Tenses


Learning verb tenses is always the tricky part of learning a language. Especially, when a language has 12 of them. It might sound scary at first but once you understand the logic behind why there are so many in the English language, you’ll be able to use them with confidence. In this post, I’ll give you a general overview on tenses that you can use as guidence before you dive into each tense one by one. Take a look at the following chart with all the tenses:

Verb Tenses Chart
12 English Verb Tenses

*S refers to subject as the performer of the action
E.g. If we examine the following sentence: ‘Mary makes a coffee.’ → Mary is the subject.
*O refers to the object on which the action is performed
E.g. In the above-mentioned sentence the coffee is the object.

Verb Tenses

In the English language, tenses are categorized according to two characteristics: tense and aspect as you can see it in the table above. Understanding tenses is more intuitive as there are past, present and future tenses, depending where the action takes place in time compared to our present.

Verb Aspect

The aspect is a bit more complicated. We differentiate three aspects: simple, progressive and perfect. Each tense has a simple, a progressive, a perfect progressive and a perfect version, adding up to 12 tenses. However, it is enough to understand the logic behind the aspects and you will know when to use them. Each aspect follows the same structure in all tenses, therefore, you will only need to learn the logic behind the structure of each aspect and you will be able to put it in past, present of future forms.

Don’t confuse tenses with clauses

In the table above, you can find all tenses in each aspect. Note that each of these tenses can be used in different clauses such as conditional and passive voice so do not confuse the two. I encourage you to check out the overview pages of each aspect before jumping into the tenses so that you will have a general understanding of the structure. Always use a verb tenses chart for guidance.

Useful abbreviations in verb structures

Most verb tenses in the English language consist of an auxuliary verb (helping verb) and a main verb, meaning that there are auxiliary verbs assisting the action verb to express the right time and aspect. At the beginning of each page, you will find a clear guideline how to form the structure in that specific tense. I will be using the following abbreviations for different verb forms:

  • Bare infinitive: Bare infinitive is the infinitive form of the  You form the first form of the verb by dropping the ‘to’ from the infinitive form.
    For example: to make → make
    to play → play
  • Simple Past: The second form of the verb is the past form or -ed form. Note that there are many irregular verbs in the English language. You can find an extensive list here.
  • Past Participle: The third form of the verb is the Past Participle. It is formed by adding -ed to the end of the verb. However, the irregular verbs have irregular Past Participle forms, as well, that you can learn along with the second forms. The third form usually follows the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ in Perfect Tenses.
  • Progressive Participle: The -ing form of the verb is created by adding -ing to the end of the verb. There are some irregularities in spelling that you can find here. The -ing form is generally used in Progressive Tenses and it is follows the auxiliary verb ‘to be’.

Always keep in mind

There are some general rules in English structures that can help you get the right form:

  • ‘Have’ as an auxiliary verb is always followed by the perfect participle of the verb.
    For example: I have been dreaming about a chocolate cake for so long.
  • ‘To be’ in progressive tenses is always followed by the progressive participe of the verb. If it is followed by the perfect participle, it refers to Passive Voice which is not a verb tense.
    For example: Bob was lying to me the whole time. → progressive
    I was being lied to the whole time. → Passive Voice
  • When you got the correct structure of the chosen aspect right, it is always the first auxiliary verb that needs to be put in the chosen tense.
    For example: ‘to be going to the movies’ →  She was going to the movies.
  • The first auxiliary verb of the tense must always agree with the subject. The form of all other auxiliary or action verbs will be determined by the auxiliary verb standing in front of them.
    For example: She has been knitting this sweater for months. → Here, the form of ‘to have’ must agree with she or third person singular.