The past perfect, also called the pluperfect, is a verb tense used to talk about actions that were completed before some point in the past.
The past perfect tense is for talking about something that happened before something else. Imagine waking up one morning and stepping outside to grab the newspaper. On your way back in, you notice a mysterious message scrawled across your front door: Tootles was here. When you’re telling this story to your friends later, how would you describe this moment? You might say something like:
In addition to feeling indignant on your behalf, your friends will also be able to understand that Tootles graffitied the door at some point in the past before the moment this morning when you saw his handiwork, because you used the past perfect tense to describe the misdeed.
The past perfect formula
The formula for the past perfect tense is had + [past participle]. It doesn’t matter if the subject is singular or plural; the formula doesn’t change.
When to use the past perfect
So what’s the difference between past perfect and simple past? When you’re talking about some point in the past and want to reference an event that happened even earlier, using the past perfect allows you to convey the sequence of the events. It’s also clearer and more specific. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
It’s a subtle difference, but the first sentence doesn’t tie Tootles’s act of using washable paint to any particular moment in time; readers might interpret it as “We were relieved that Tootles was in the habit of using washable paint.” In the second sentence, the past perfect makes it clear that you’re talking about a specific instance of using washable paint.
Another time to use the past perfect is when you are expressing a condition and a result:
The past perfect is used in the part of the sentence that explains the condition (the if-clause).
Most often, the reason to write a verb in the past perfect tense is to show that it happened before other actions in the same sentence that are described by verbs in the simple past tense. Writing an entire paragraph with every verb in the past perfect tense is unusual.
When not to use the past perfect
Don’t use the past perfect when you’re not trying to convey some sequence of events. If your friends asked what you did after you discovered the graffiti, they would be confused if you said:
They’d likely be wondering what happened next because using the past perfect implies that your action of cleaning the door occurred before something else happened, but you don’t say what that something else is. The “something else” doesn’t always have to be explicitly mentioned, but context needs to make it clear. In this case there’s no context, so the past perfect doesn’t make sense.
How to make the past perfect negative
Making the past perfect negative is simple! Just insert not between had and [past participle].
How to ask a question
The formula for asking a question in the past perfect tense is had + [subject] + [past participle].
Common regular verbs in the past perfect tense
|to ask||had asked||had not asked|
|to work||had worked||had not worked|
|to call||had called||had not called|
|to use||had used||had not used|
Common irregular verbs in the past perfect tense
|to be||had been||had not been|
|to have||had had||had not been|
|to do||had done||had not done|
|to say||had said||had not said|
|to get||had gotten*||had not gotten*|
|to make||had made||had not made|
|to go||had gone||had not gone|
|to take||had taken||had not taken|
|to see||had seen||had not seen|
|to come||had come||had not come|
*The past participle of “to get” is “gotten” in American English. In British English, the past participle is “got.”