Form of the Simple Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect is formed with had + the past participle.

I had (I'd) >
You had (You'd) > arrived
He had (He'd) > finished
She had (She'd) > started
It had (It'd) > shut
We had (We'd) > lost
You had (You'd) > drunk
They had (They'd) >


Uses of the Past Perfect Tense

It is sometimes supposed that we use the Past Perfect simply to describe 'events that happened a long time ago'. This is not the case. We use the Simple Past for this purpose:

  • Anthony and Cleopatra died in 30 B.C.


1. The Past Perfect referring to an earlier past

The main use of the Past Perfect is to show which of two events happened first. Here are two past events:

  • The patient died. The doctor arrived.

We can combine these two sentences in different ways to show their relationship in the past:

  • The patient died when the doctor arrived. (i.e. the patient died at the time or just after the doctor arrived)

  • The patient had died when the doctor arrived. (i.e. the patient was already dead when the doctor arrived)

The event that happened first need not be mentioned first:

  • The doctor arrived quickly, but the patient had already died.

Some typical conjunctions used before a Past Perfect to refer to 'an earlier past' are: when and after, as soon as, by the time that. They often imply a cause-and-effect relationship:

  • We cleared up as soon as our guests had left.

Adverbs often associated with the Present Perfect: already, ever, for (+ period of time), just, never, never before, since (+ point of time) are often used with the Past Perfect to emphasize the sequence of events:

  • When I rang, Jim had already left.

  • The boys loved the zoo. They had never seen wild animals before.


2. The Past Perfect as the past equivalent of the Present Perfect

The Past Perfect sometimes functions simply as the past form of the Present Perfect:

  • Juliet is excited because she has never been to a dance before.

  • Juliet was excited because she had never been to a dance before.

This is particularly the case in indirect speech.Used in this way, the Past Perfect can emphasize completion:

  • I began collecting stamps in February and by November I had collected more than 2000.

Yet can be used with the Past Perfect, but we often prefer expressions like until then or by that time. Compare:

  • He hasn't finished yet.

  • He hadn't finished by yesterday evening.


3. The Past Perfect for unfulfilled hopes and wishes

We can use the Past Perfect (or the Past Simple or Progressive) with verbs like expect, hope, mean, suppose, think, want, to describe things we hoped or wished to do but didn't:

  • I had hoped to send him a telegram to congratulate him on his marriage, but I didn't manage it.


Obligatory and non-obligatory uses of the Past Perfect


We do not always need to use the Past Perfect to describe which event came first. Sometimes this is perfectly clear, as in:

  • After I finished, I went home.

The sequence is often clear in relative clauses as well:

  • I wore the necklace (which) my grandmother (had) left me.

We normally use the Simple Past for events that occur in sequence:

  • I got out of the taxi, paid the fare, tipped the driver and dashed into the station.

  • 'I came, I saw, I conquered.' Julius Caesar declared.

But there are instances when we need to be very precise in our use of Past or Past Perfect, particularly with when:

  • When I arrived, Anne left. (i.e. at that moment)

  • When I arrived, Anne had left. (i.e. before I got there)

  • In the first sentence, I saw Anne, h,wever briefly. In the second, I didn't see her at all. See also indirect speech.

We normally use the Past Perfect with conjunctions like no sooner ... than or hardly/scarcely/barely ... when:

  • Mrs Winthrop had no sooner left the room than they began to gossip about her.

  • Mr Jenkins had hardly/scarcely/barely begun his speech when he was interrupted.


Simple Past and Simple Past Perfect in typical contexts


The Past Perfect combines with other past tenses (Simple Past, Past Progressive, Past Perfect Progressive) when we are talking or writing about the past. It is used in story-telling, biography, autobiography, reports, eye-witness accounts, etc. and is especially useful for establishing the sequence of events:

  • When we returned from our holidays, we found our house in a mess. What had happened while we had been away? A burglar had broken into the house and had stolen a lot of our things. (Now that the time of the burglary has been established relative to our return, the story can continue in the simple past.) The burglar got in through the kitchen window. He had no difficulty in forcing it open. Then he went into the living-room.

Note the reference to an earlier past in the following narrative:


  • Silas Badley inherited several old cottages in our village. He wanted to pull them down and build new houses which he could sell for high prices. He wrote to Mr Harrison, now blind and nearly eighty, asking him to leave his cottage within a month. Old Mr Harrison was very distressed. (The situation has been established through the use of the simple past. What follows now is a reference to an earlier past through the use of the simple past perfect.) He had been born in the cottage and stayed there all his life. His children had grown up there; his wife had died there and now he lived there all alone.