The Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect is formed by using had + past participle.

The good news is that the auxiliary ‘had’ is used for all subjects, so you don’t have to think about conjugating for the subject. The not-so-good news is that you might have to review the irregular verbs list! You are probably familiar with this list. For example: see – saw – seen. The third verb (seen) is the past participle. Many common English verbs are irregular. Regular past participles end in -ed.

Past perfect form:
I had seen
You had seen
He/she/it had seen
We had seen

They had seen

The past perfect is usually used in combination with another past action in the simple past. Using the past perfect allows us to show which action happened first. The past perfect action happened before the simple past action. For example:
  • Julie invited me to watch a movie at her house, but I had already seen that movie.
    • I saw the movie before she invited me to watch it.
  • The bus had just left when I got to the bus stop.
    • The bus left first. In other words, I was too late.
  • By the time I finished work, all my colleagues had already gone home for the day.
    • My colleagues went home first.

The two actions can be mentioned in either order. Compare to the examples above:
  • I had already seen that movie before Julie invited me to watch it at her house.
  • When I got to the bus stop, the bus had just left.
  • All my colleagues had already gone home for the day by the time I finished work.

The past perfect can also be used in combination with a specific point in time rather than another past action.
  • By the time she was 20, Amanda had already published three books of poetry.
    • The specific point in time is when Amanda was 20 years old.
  • Everyone had arrived at the party by 8:00pm.

Question and negative

Common adverbs with the past perfect – just, already, never, ever, still, yet
The past perfect is often used with an adverb. Just, already, never and ever are placed in between the auxiliary had and the past participle.
  • Just means that the first action happened very shortly before the second action.
    • Ex: The train had just pulled into the station when I got there.
  • Already means that one action happened sometime before another action.
    • Ex: The lesson had already started when Luis arrived to class.
  • Never is used with the past perfect to express that an action didn’t happen UNTIL some point when the situation changed.
    • Ex. Siji had never seen snow before travelling to Canada.
  • Ever is used to express all the time prior to the past perfect action.
    • Italy was the most beautiful country she had ever visited.
  • Still is used in the negative to emphasize that a situation is continuing. This adverb goes before the auxiliary verb.
    • Ex. I still hadn’t finished work at 7:00pm.
  • Yet is also used with negatives, but this adverb goes at the end of the sentence.
    • Ex. It was time to submit the assignment, but the group hadn’t finished it yet.
Students often ask:
Is the past perfect common? Answer: It’s more common in writing than in speaking.

Is it possible to say ‘had had’? Answer: Yes, if the main verb of the sentence is have, then the past perfect will be had had. The first had is the auxiliary verb, and the second had is the past participle. Example: I woke up screaming because I had had a nightmare.

Can’t I just use the simple past instead of the past perfect? Answer: Sometimes you can! If you use a word like ‘before’ or ‘after’, then it will be clear which action happened first. Let’s look again at an example from above.
  • The bus had just left when I got to the bus stop.
    • What happens if you just use the simple past? The bus left when I got to the bus stop. This sounds like both actions happened at the same time. If we want to show that the bus left first, we could say: The bus left a moment before I got to the bus stop.