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Past Perfect Tense: How to Use It, With Examples

Updated on May 8, 2023Grammar

The past perfect, also called the pluperfect, is a verb tense used to talk about something that happened before something else that is also in the past. 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 will you describe this moment? You might say something like:

I turned back to the house and saw that someone named Tootles had defaced my front door!

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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 their 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 the past perfect and the 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:

We were relieved that Tootles used washable paint.

We were relieved that Tootles had used washable paint.

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; listeners 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:

If I had woken up earlier this morning, I would have caught Tootles red-handed.

The past perfect is used in the part of the sentence that explains the condition (the if-clause).

Most often when writing, the reason to use a verb in the past perfect tense is to show that the action it describes happened before other actions, in the same sentence or preceding ones, that are described by verbs in the simple past tense. Writing an entire paragraph with every verb in the past perfect tense is generally unnecessary, because once you have established the earlier time, you can continue to describe that earlier time in the simple past and readers will understand when the action is happening.

When I was out there this morning cleaning off the door, I remembered that just last week I had noticed what a muddy white color it is, and I had thought about other colors for it. I even went inside then and looked at paint colors online.

In the first sentence, you clearly establish the time before this morning that you were recalling this morning with the use of the past perfect in had noticed and had thought. Then, in the second sentence, you can switch back to the simple past and be understood as still referring to that earlier time last week. 

When not to use the past perfect

Don’t use the past perfect when you’re not trying to convey some sequence of past events. If your friends asked what else you did this morning besides discovering the graffiti, they would be confused if you said:

I had cleaned it off the door.

They’d likely be waiting for you to go on to describe what happened next because using the past perfect implies that your action of cleaning the door occurred before something else happened. 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! The formula is had + not + [past participle].

We looked for witnesses, but the neighbors had not seen Tootles in the act.
If Tootles had not included their own name in the message, we would have no idea who was behind it.

How to ask a question in the past perfect

The formula for asking a question in the past perfect tense is had + [subject] + [past participle].

Had Tootles caused trouble in other neighborhoods before they struck ours?

Common regular verbs in the past perfect tense

Infinitive Past Perfect Negative
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

Infinitive Past Perfect Negative
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.”

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