Past Perfect

Definition

LEVEL 1 EASY EXPLANATION:

(Present) I am tired. I haven’t slept well.

(Past) I was tired. I hadn’t slept well.

In the present: we are at the cinema now but we are late, the film has started!

In the past. Yesterday, we went to the cinema. We were late, the film had started.

The past perfect shows that an action happened before the past.

I arrived at the cinema but the film had started! = I was late

I arrived at the station but the train had left = I missed the train

I visited my friend last weekend. His children had grown a lot! = I was surprised

LEVEL 2 EXPLANATION:

Something important happened in the past / There was a consequence in the past.

Each verb has three forms

For example : to do

  • Do – present simple
  • Did – past simple
  • Done- past participle

Present perfect = have + past participle

The film has started

= action happened in the past, consequence on present

Past perfect = had + past participle

The film had started

= Action happened in the past, with a consequence on the past

The consequence was that I missed the beginning of the film

LEVEL 3 EXPLANATION:

Past simple = an action in the past :

I  played tennis

Present perfect = the result (of an action in the past) in the present

I have played tennis (result = I know how to play, let’s start)

Past perfect = the result (of an action in the past) in the past.

I had played tennis = I knew how to play tennis, so we started quickly.

 

Ash had started = had + verb (past participle) = past perfect = this action is before a time in the past. This action expresses a result / something important.
Ash had started = this action is before a time in the past. This action expresses ‘something important’ happened in the past.

The order of events

To explain the past perfect, here are two actions- notice the order:

  1. The movie started
  2. I arrived at the cinema

Action #1 happens first.  So in fact, I was late.

If the sentence was “The movie started and I arrived”, this means the actions happened at the same time.

If we describe an event or tell a story in chronological order, then there is no confusion.

However, the order of the actions in the sentence can change what happened.

I arrived. The movie started.

So which action was first?

I arrived. The movie started.

Notice that this changes the order of actions.

To use this order with the correct sequence of events, we can use “before”:

The movie started before I arrived.

I arrived. The movie started before.

These are correct!  However, the second sentence isn’t natural.

Note: sometimes it’s not clear what happened first.  Not even logic can help – a context is needed or it can be confusing.

For example:

He had sent her many letters but she had never replied.

She had never replied.  He had sent many letters.

If it’s confusing, why use a perfect tense?

We can use a perfect tenses to express the result rather than the action.  This describes something important / impact/ consequence/ result.  It adds more meaning to the sentence.  It could be emotion,  or a status, or even another  action – it’s up to interpretation.

If it had not been = this shows STRONG consequence. If it wasn't for him = same meaning but WEAK consequenceIf it had not been for him = this shows STRONG consequence.If it wasn’t for him = same meaning but WEAK / NO consequence (+ action is in the past, not specifically before the past)

How to interpret the result? 

With every perfect tense, there is a result.

In this case:

When I arrived, the movie had started.

The result = I was late. I was angry. I missed the start of the film.

 

I looked out of the window. It was sunny, but it had rained all night. (The ground was wet)

We arrived at the party on time but they had already cut the cake! (They hadn’t waited for us, they had forgotten us, we were annoyed)

Notice the use of “but” and “already” to increase the impact.

Using the Past Perfect

When we arrived at the cinema, the film had started.

We arrived at the cinema but it had already started!

What is the result of this sentence?  We don’t need to express it.  We can express it, but it is implied (said without words).

If we use past simple all the time, this is correct, but it is not interesting language.  Often, people get bored with all the details and prefer to use their imagination.

It always depends on your audience and your intention.

We arrived at the cinema on time but it had already started!

As you tell this story, what happens next? Are you giving a lecture or having a conversation? A good conversation is an exchange, where people have chances to speak.  Some prefer to listen, of course…

The ruins WERE in Saudi. This action did not change. It did not have an impact. The sentence does not show it was before another action, so it is not written in past perfect. The stone structure HAD appeared: this shows this action happened before something else in the past. Maxima HAD come: this is also before something else, but it is AFTER the structure appeared. The text is giving us important information before telling us more about the past.
The ruins WERE in Saudi. This action did not change. It did not have an impact. The sentence does not show it was before another action, so it is not written in past perfect. The stone structure HAD appeared: this shows this action happened before something else in the past. Maxima HAD come: this is also before something else, but it is AFTER the structure appeared. The text is giving us important information before telling us more about the past.

Test

Let’s practice: complete the sentences with either past perfect or past simple

I worked very hard. I __________ (be) very tired.

I worked very hard. I was very tired.

I  ___ (go) to bed.  I _______ (work) all day.

I went to bed.  I had worked all day.

Try the Past Perfect Test

 

*images are from The King of Fighters XIII  , copyright SNK