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The Past Perfect Tense

1. What is the past perfect tense?

The past perfect is a past before another past.

Therefore it needs two events:
1. Past Event 1 (past tense)
2. Past Event 2 (past perfect tense)
*Past Event 2 happened before Past Event 1

2. How to make the past perfect tense

The past perfect tense is:
had + p.p.

*p.p. = done, gone, seen, eaten, etc.

A sentence with the two past events is:
Past Event 1 (past tense) + Past Event 2 (had + p.p.)

*It does not matter wther Past Event 1 or Past Event 2 is written first.

Past event 1 (past tense)Past event 2 (had + p.p.)Full sentence

She got home
her ice cream had meltedBy the time she got home, her ice cream had melted.
The teacher gave us a bookI had read itThe teacher gave us a book to study, but I had read it before.
She met us at the restaurantshe had already eatenShe had already eaten before she met us at the restaurant.
She went to live in Australiashe hadn’t studied EnglishShe hadn’t studied English before she went to live in Australia.

3. The difference between past perfect tense and past simple tense

When people talk about the past, they usually use the past simple tense (also called ‘the past tense’).

It is possible to use past simple + past simple to describe a ‘past before a past’. However, the story must keep changing its time for every event. This begins to look bad when sentences get longer then two clauses.

Past simple + past perfect can move the reader into the past, and then describe different pasts from there.

Number of clausesPast simple + past simplePast simple + past perfect
2The ice cream melted before I got home.The ice cream had melted before I had got home.
3She ate before she met us at the restaurant, so went home early.She had eaten before she met us at the restaurant, so went home early.
4She didn’t study English before she went to live in Australia, but after she got there she studied every day.She hadn’t studied English before she went to live in Australia, but after she got there she studied every day.
5The teacher gave us a book to study, but I read it before. I got a copy when I was a child and enjoyed it.The teacher gave us a book to study, but I had read it before. I had got a copy when I was a child and had enjoyed it.

The past perfect also makes context easier to understand in conversations and stories.

Only past tenseUsing past perfect
“Did you take Julia to that restaurant last week?”
“Yes, although she ate before she got there.”
“Did you take Julia to that restaurant last week?”
“Yes, although she had already eaten.”
“I heard you went to watch Titanic 2 yesterday.”
“Yes, but I saw it before I watched it yesterday.”
“I heard you went to watch Titanic 2 yesterday.”
“Yes, but I had seen it before.”
“Did you know any Chinese before you came to Shanghai?”
“I studied a little, but did not learn very much.”
“Did you know any Chinese before you came to Shanghai?”
“I had studied a little, but hadn’t learnt very much.”
Peter arrived at the school a little after the bell rang. Before he arrived all the students went inside. Peter had to walk into the building by himself. He entered the classroom but the teacher was doing the class. He sat at the back of the room, hoping she didn’t see him, or she decided before not to notice.Peter arrived at the school a little after the bell had rung. 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.

4. Exercises

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

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