Grammar 5 min read

How to use the Past Perfect Tense of a Verb in a Sentence

Main Takeaways:

  • Text that’s written in past perfect tense typically features the formula had + [past participle].
  • Past perfect tense provides more clarification regarding a timeframe than simple perfect tense.
  • Use past perfect when describing a point in the past or an event that happened before something else.
  • Use past perfect when expressing a condition, also known as the if-clause.
  • Avoid using past perfect when you aren’t describing a sequence of events.
  • Make past perfect negative by adding not between had and the past participle.

Sometimes verbs are confusing when they express timeframes, but past perfect tense or pluperfect provides clarity. Ensure your audience understands written and verbal communications by using past perfect as needed.

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What is Past Perfect Tense?

Past perfect tense occurs when you combine the past tense of the verb “to have,” which is had, with the past participle of the main verb.

Past perfect formula: subject + had + past participle = past perfect tense

Simply put, pluperfect expresses something that happened at a previous point in time.

What is the Structure of Past Perfect?

We use past perfect tense when referring to an event that happened at some point in the past.
We use past perfect tense when referring to an event that happened at some point in the past.

Past perfect tense involves a subject, the word had, and the past participle of a verb. Past perfect formula: subject + had + past participle = past perfect tense.

Let’s break everything down with this past perfect example:

Lucy had requested a gluten-free sandwich, but the chef put her turkey on a whole-wheat bun instead.

Lucy is the subject.

Had is the past tense version of “to have.”

Requested is the past participle of the verb request.

You can verify this by asking yourself what happened first. Did Lucy order a gluten-free sandwich first, or did the chef give her a whole-wheat bun first?

The word had indicated that Lucy ordered her sandwich before receiving the wrong item.

Writers don’t always use had at the beginning of a sentence. However, past perfect tense still signifies an event that happened before another event.

Confused yet? Here’s another example of past perfect tense:

John’s ex said she still loved him, but John had already found a new partner.

Tough luck for John’s ex here, as this sentence shows John moved on before she confessed her love. This is evident even though had appears in the second part of the sentence rather than the first.

Where do we use Past Perfect?

Use past perfect tense in the part of the sentence that contains the if-clause, which explains the condition. This verb tense shows an action that took place before other actions in the sentence with verbs that indicate simple past tense.

Past Perfect Tense:

Jill had gotten sick from eating expired cupcakes.
Thomas had gotten on his supervisor’s bad side after questioning her authority.
Kara wished she had won the raffle at the picnic.
Juan had just walked in the door when the phone rang.
Laverne had founded her company before the pandemic’s rigid guidelines.
He had trouble sleeping yesterday because he had received some bad news.

Take a look at the examples of past perfect tense above. These examples all follow the formula referenced earlier: subject + had + past participle = past perfect tense.

When Shouldn’t you use Past Perfect Tense?

Avoid past perfect tense when you aren’t referencing a sequence of events. Inserting had unnecessarily is a common error people make in written and verbal communication.

Let’s say you came home and discovered someone stole your Amazon package. You stomped over to your neighbor’s house and vented about the situation. What should you say?

Someone had stolen my package.
(Past Simple) Someone stole my package.
(Past Perfect ) I called the police because I noticed someone had stolen my package.

You don’t need to include had in your sentence. Unless you’re telling your neighbor what you did before or after you noticed the package was missing.

What is the Difference Between Past and Past Perfect?

As you may have guessed, past and past perfect both describe events that happened at a previous time. However, past simple, sometimes just called past, doesn’t use the word had. That’s because the past simple describes a single event, while past perfect convey a sequence of events.

Past Simple:

He bought fast food for breakfast yesterday.
She tried on the dress at the store.
Marco visited his cousin at work.
Shauna ordered pizza for lunch.

Past Perfect:

The fridge was empty even though she had just gone grocery shopping on Monday.
He had spent hours studying for the exam but still failed.
Lena’s boss had warned her not to leave early, but Lena still went home before lunch.
Alan was surprised by how fashionable the glasses he had ordered online were.

How do you Make Past Perfect Negative?

It’s easy to make past perfect negative by adding not between the word had and your past participle.

Past Perfect Negative:

The neighbors had not noticed anything suspicious the day my package went missing.
Arnold was frustrated because his mother still had not accepted responsibility for her actions.
Julie had not expressed her feelings clearly via email, so her client called for clarification.

We can’t make your past less confusing, but we can help you describe it with clarity. Remember the tips above, whether you’re using past perfect, past simple, or past perfect negative.

Read More: How to use not Only… but Also in a Sentence

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