Past Perfect Tense: How Does It Work?

In the English language, we use a specific verb tense to indicate that an action happened in the past—either before something else or at a particular time. We call this conjugation the “past perfect” or “pluperfect” tense, and any verb can be written this way. The tense helps orient the reader to multiple actions that occured at different points in the past. 

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • To walk
  • To blink
  • To wish

 

Now, if you wanted to write the above verbs in the past perfect tense, you would simply add the word “had” to the simple past tense form of the verb. 

  • had + walked
  • had + blinked
  • had + wished

 

I had walked home from school the day before the sidewalk collapsed.

In the example above, you know that you need to use the past perfect tense because one action took place prior to another event in the past. The walk happened before the collapse, but both of these events took place in the past.

They had blinked simultaneously. 

Here, you use the pluperfect to show that the action took place at a specific time.

He had just wished on the shooting star when she came outside. 

Again, the past perfect clarifies that he made the wish at a time in the past before she came outside (also in the past). The adverb “just” appears in the middle of the past perfect phrase “had wished.”

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What About Irregular Verbs?

With common irregular verbs, you’ll need to know the past participle in order to conjugate the past perfect tense. As long as you know the past participle of the main verb, it will be easy to write the past perfect tense.

Here are a few irregular verbs and their past participles:

  • to bind – bound
  • to break – broken
  • to get – gotten
  • to grow – grown
  • to write – written
  • to swing – swung

So, for irregular verbs, you simply combine the word “had” with the past participle. 

  • had + bound
  • had + broken
  • had + gotten
  • had + grown
  • had + written
  • had + swung

Negatives and Contractions

You can negate any past perfect verb by placing the word “not” between “had” and the past participle. 

  • had + not + bound
  • had + not + broken
  • had + not + gotten

You can also use “hadn’t,” if you prefer a contraction. 

  • hadn’t + grown
  • hadn’t + written
  • hadn’t + swung

When you don’t want to write the word “had” in its entirety, you can use the apostrophe d contraction. 

  • Last year, they‘d bound together two lengths of twine.
  • He‘d broken a few laws by the time he got caught. 
  • By March, we‘d gotten used to eating bread.

Helpful Adverbs

Keep an eye out for these adverbs. They’re often good clues, and they signal that you may be dealing with the past perfect tense. These adverbs all function to orient a verb in time. 

  • already
  • still
  • just 
  • ever
  • never
  • before

What Is the Present Perfect?

Unlike the past perfect, the present perfect tense should be used to indicate that something is happening continuously, has happened at an unspecified time in the past, or has happened many times before. The rules for conjugating a verb into the present perfect tense are almost the same as the ones we outlined for the past perfect. The only difference? Use the words “have” or “has”—not “had.”

  • have/has + bound | They have bound the package with string.
  • have/has + broken | Leslie has broken up with Peter many times. 
  • have/has + gotten | He has gotten lazy within the last week.
  • have/has + grown | The kids have grown out of their school clothes again. 
  • have/has + written | I have written to you twice since we last spoke. 
  • have/has + swung | John has swung and missed for the past two turns. 

Sources:

  1. https://examples.yourdictionary.com/past-perfect-tense-examples.html
  2. https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-intermediate/past-perfect
  3. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/past-perfect-simple-or-past-simple