The easiest way to think of the past perfect tense is ‘a past before a past’.

– To make the past perfect you need two events in the past.

– the earlier event uses the past perfect (the other event can be the past tense, or past continuous)

– to make the past perfect use had + past participle (gone/done/grown/eaten etc.)

Examples of past perfect tense

1. By the time she got home, her ice cream had melted.
2. She had already eaten before she met us at the restaurant.
3. She hadn’t studied English before she went to live in Australia.
4. The teacher gave us a book to study, but I had read it before.

How to make the past perfect

To make the past perfect, there must be two events in the past: one is the main past, and the second happened before that (the one before is the past perfect).

The past perfect is:
had + p.p. (+ past)

The difference between past perfect and past simple

It is possible to use the past simple instead of the past perfect; however, there is a difference:
– using the past simple is only making a list of events (earliest to latest)
– using the past perfect is looking backwards into the past (looking from later to earlier)

Note:
if using the past simple, the time of the story changes as you describe events.
If using the past perfect, you can ‘leave’ the time and describe things that happened before.

Examples of Past Simple vs. Past Perfect

1.
(past simple) Before I got home, the ice cream melted.
(past perfect) Before I got home, the ice cream had melted.

2.
(simple past) She ate before she met us at the restaurant.
(past perfect) She had already eaten before she met us at the restaurant.

3.
(simple past) She didn’t study English before she went to live in Australia.
(past perfect) She hadn’t studied English before she went to live in Australia.

4.
(simple past) The teacher gave us a book to study, but I read it before.
(past perfect) The teacher gave us a book to study, but I had read it before.

It is easier to see how using the past perfect helps when used in the context of conversations and stories

A: Did you take Julia to that restaurant last week?
B: Yes, although she had already eaten.
(this sounds better than “Yes, although she ate before I took her to the restaurant.”)

A: I heard you went to watch Titanic 2 yesterday.
B: Yes, but I had seen it before.
(this sounds better than “Yes, but I saw it before I watched it yesterday”)

A: Did you know any Chinese before you came to Shanghai?
B: I had studied a little, but hadn’t learnt very much.
(this sounds better than “I studied a little before I came, but I didn’t learn very much)

Peter arrived at the school a little after the bell had rang. All the students had already gone inside, and Peter had to walk into the building by himself. As he entered the classroom he saw the teacher had started the lesson. He sat at the back of the room, hoping she didn’t see him, or had decided not to notice.

Exercises

1. Think of an event in the past. Add a past before that using the past perfect.