The Past Perfect Tense

By: Mubarak Abdessalami

        When I was asked to talk about the past perfect tense, I immediately got aware that I am about a hard task to do: I must be long but precise.

        Well, in this paper, I'll try to introduce you to the this tense through the following points:

  1. definition of the past perfect tense
  2. Its form
  3. Its use
  4. The situations where it is used.
  5. The linkers that go with it.
  6. common Errors
  7. conclusion


        To begin, the past perfect tense could simply be defined as the past of the past.
- It indicates that an action had happened before a given time in the past when another action happened.
- It describes an action completed before a defined past moment.
- It describes an action that comes before another action in the past.
- It describes a past action that began and ended before another action in the past.



Subj. + had + verb in the past participle.


Subj. + had + not + verb in the past participle.


Had + subj + verb in the past participle.

        The problem for most students is when they encounter an irregular verb they didn't know. But as for regular verbs they constitute no challenge as the form is always "verb+ed" because of the no-inflexion of the regular verbs in the past and past participle.



        How are all these details used to make correct utterances? Look at these two sentences. We need to combine them to tell which of the two actions comes first.
Leila took her umbrella. She went out.

        Now observe how we can decide which action of the two (take the umbrella) or (go out) comes first:

        Clearly because of the rain,

        This way we place the events in their correct chronological order of action in time.

        Let me borrow something for you from the Moroccan traditional eating habits. In Morocco, we generally eat couscous with bare hands. So we always have to wash our hands before and after eating.

Last night Hadj Brahim ate couscous. He washed his hands.

        Here I want you to tell me which of the two actions (eating couscous) or (washing hands) was the first? You cannot unless you use the past perfect tense with the simple past tense.
        If I want to combine the two sentences, I need to show if the washing was before or after the eating of couscous.

        In these two sentences, thanks to the use of the past perfect tense, I could understand that the action of washing comes before the action of eating and the two actions occurred in the past.

        Now contemplate these

Last night when Hadj Brahim had eaten couscous, he washed his hands.

        In this case, the action of (eating couscous) comes first. Amazing! No?



Before, After and When

        In time clauses, the past perfect tense is used when a past action followed another. But generally the lapse of time which separates the two actions is not defined. Let's take the example above and try to show how much time (long or short) had elapsed before the following action took place.

Hadj Brahim washed his hands. He ate couscous.

        To do this we have to use the right linkers. OK, there are many connectors that can join the two sentences together and we have seen three so far, notably before, after and when. And these only show that a given action had occurred before another. Now if we want to stress the fact that the time elapsed before the second action happened is very short, we can call upon other linkers namely:

"no sooner .. than" or "no sooner .. when" , "as soon as"

  1. No sooner had Hadj Brahim washed his hands than he ate couscous. (pay attention to the order of words here)
  2. As soon as Hadj Brahim had eaten couscous, he washed his hands.

        Things go very fast. The lapse of time separating action one (washing hands) and (eating couscous) is almost unmentioned. Likewise the time separating actions one and two in example (2) is very short.

Till or until

        The combination of two past actions can be done with till or until.
  1. They had kept silent till the teacher came.
  2. They hadn't left until the bell rang.

More examples:



        The past perfect tense could be used in situations such as:
  1. To show that an action happened before another in the past.
    1. After she had written the letter, she went out to post it.
    2. She wanted to know why he had broken her toy.
    3. They had already eaten all the food when I returned.
    4. She thought she had seen something like that before.
    5. He had been in England until they expatriated him to his country of origin recently.
    6. She had lived at ease until her husband died.
    7. He had worked in that factory for 30 years before he was fired last month.

  2. To show cause and effect.
    1. Leila didn't succeed because she hadn't taken the final exam.
    2. She went back home as she had forgotten to close the door.

  3. Similaly, To report a speech:
    1. Leila said, "I bought a new bracelet"
    2. Leila said that she had bought a new bracelet.
    3. She wondered why her toy had been broken.


        Be careful about the use of the past perfect tense:


        In order to be precise in your use of the past perfect indicating the sequence of events, one has to be more careful about the meaning than about the grammatical structure:
  1. After I had watched the film, the lights went out.
  2. Before I watched the film, the lights had gone out.

        In this pair of sentences, the use of the past perfect tense in the "after" and "before" clauses is to be carefully prepared for the sake of meaning.

        In example (1) the speaker did watch the film; whereas in example (2) he didn't because the lights had already been out.

                                "After" is formally followed by a perfect tense.
After she had read the message, she left hurriedly.

                        "Before" is generally followed by simple past.
Before she heard the news, she had been calm.

                        The combination of past simple and past perfect with "as soon as" and "no sooner" stresses the fact that the lapse of time separating the two actions was very short.
- As soon as Leila had opened the office door, the boss told her the bad news.
- No sooner had they finished eating, than they left the restaurant [immediately].


  1. : Why is the Past Perfect in a good mood?
  2. : Because he had been "tense" until he met up with the Simple Past.


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Practise with this

Or with this

"by the time" clause

The Past Perfect Progressive Tense