Understanding Past Perfect tense: Formation, Usage, and Signal Words

One of the most important past tenses in the English language is the Past Perfect tense. You will learn the Past Perfect tense after you learn the Simple Past tense. It is important that when learning English past tenses, you learn not to confuse the Simple Past and the Past Perfect tense.

The Past Perfect tense is used in English to express that an action took place in the past before another action. It is used to show a chronological sequence of events in the past.


The formation of the Past Perfect tense

Similar to the Past Continious tense, you need an auxiliary to form the Past Perfect tense. In the case of the Past Perfect tense, the auxiliary verb Have is needed in the past. So you form the Past Perfect with the conjugated verb had. Also, you are forming the Past Participle of the main verb. Remember, the past participle of a main verb is always formed by adding the ending - ed to the stem of the main verb of the sentence.

Thus, you should remember the following formula for forming the Past Perfect: Auxiliary verb "had" + Past Participle of the main verb = Past Perfect.

The best way to get a feel for the past perfect is to look at the following examples of regular past perfect structures.

Past Perfect Example
I had walked I had walked to the store before it started raining.
You had studied I had walked to the store before it started raining.
She had cooked I had walked to the store before it started raining.
He had watched I had walked to the store before it started raining.
They had cleaned They had cleaned the house before their parents came to visit.
We had finished We had finished the project before the deadline.

Irregular verbs in the past perfect tense

There are some verbs that do not follow the typical past participle form with the -ed ending in the past perfect tense. These are important to memorize and remember over time. However, the irregularities in the Past Perfect tense only apply to the Past Participle of the main verb. Here are some irregular verbs you need to memorize.

For better understanding and practice, we've also put together a few sample sentences for the Past Perfect tense with irregular verbs.

Verb Examples
eat ➡ eaten I had eaten breakfast before I left for work.
go ➡ gone She had gone to bed before I came home.
drive ➡ driven She had gone to bed before I came home.
see ➡ seen She had gone to bed before I came home.
write ➡ written She had gone to bed before I came home.
be ➡ been She had been to Paris before.

How to use the Past Perfect tense

The Past Perfect tense focuses on the chronological sequence of several actions or activities. Consequently, the Past Perect is used whenever an action in the past is followed by a subsequent action. It should also be noted that the Past Perfect is very often used in combination with the Simple Past. Therefore, you should also take a look at the Simple Past tense.

Signal word Example
Before He had finished his homework before he went out to play.
Already I had already eaten breakfast by the time she woke up.
Just They had just left the house when the storm started.
Never She had never seen such a beautiful sunset before.
Once Once I had finished my work, I went out for a walk.
Until I had never tasted sushi until I went to Japan.
Yet They hadn't visited the Louvre yet before they went to Paris.

As you can see from the example sentences, the signal words that indicate the past perfect tense are always those that are used to signal the sequence of two or more actions. Furthermore, you could see from these examples that the signal words of the Past Perfect tense are often placed between the auxiliary verb had and the respective verb of the sentence


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