Past Perfect Tense: Definition, Structure, and Usage

The past perfect tense is used to describe an action or event that occurred before another past action or event. It effectively conveys a sequence of events in the past, showing which event happened first.

For example: 

  • She had left the office by the time we arrived.
  • By the time they woke up, the sun had already risen.

In both examples, the actions in the past perfect (leaving the office, the sun rising) occurred before the other past actions (our arrival, their waking up).

How Do You Form the Past Perfect Tense?

The past perfect tense is used to describe one event that happened before another past event.

The Past Perfect Tense Formula

To form the past perfect tense, combine “had” with the past participle of the main verb. 

The formula to create the past perfect tense is:

  • Subject + had + past participle verb form

For example:

  • The professor had discussed the results of the exam with the class. 
  • I had expected to see her before we left for the beach, but she never showed up. 

When changing active sentences into passive ones, the object becomes the subject of the passive verb. You can also form a passive past perfect tone using the following formula:

  • Subject + had been + past participle

For example: 

  • Active: I had eaten the shrimp when Joey came.
  • Passive: The shrimp had been eaten by me when Joey came.

The Past Perfect Tense Question Formula

In the past perfect tense, question sentences usually start with the auxiliary verb, subject, and action verb. 

The formula to create the past perfect interrogative sentence is:

  • Had + subject + past participle

For example:

  • Had your dog calmed down when you left the room?
  • Had you visited the museum before it closed?

The Past Perfect Tense Negative Formula

To make a negative sentence in the past perfect tense, we use “had not,” followed by the past participle form of the main verb.

The formula is:

  • Subject + had not + past participle of the main verb

For example:

  • We had not discussed my proposal when she left.

What Are the Uses of the Past Perfect Tense?

The past perfect tense is used to talk about an action that happened before another action in the past.

For example:

  • Mylene had been sick when the doctor arrived. (The first event is “Mylene had been sick,” and the second event is “the doctor arrived.”)

We also use it with “before” to talk about something that didn’t finish before something else happened.

For example:

  • Lisa left before Luis had tried to talk to her. (Here, “Lisa left” is an action that happened first. The phrase “Luis had tried to talk to her” means Luis wanted to speak with Lisa, but by the time he attempted to do so, she was already gone.)

When we report what someone said in the past, we often use the past perfect tense. Use past perfect in reported speech after verbs like said, told, thought, and asked

For example: He said that the man had left.