Number one for English language teachers

Past perfect aspect – article

Type: Reference material

An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on ways to approach teaching the past perfect aspect.

Introduction

The perfect aspect usually describes events or states which occur or begin during a past period of time.

The present perfect implies a connection between something that happened in the past and a present moment in time, e.g.

I have read your letter.

 By contrast, the past perfect, formed from auxiliary had plus a past participle refers to an action or situation which occurred before a particular time in the past, and therefore represents a connection between something which happened in the past and a past moment in time, e.g.

I had read your letter.

If we want to talk about a past event or situation that happened earlier than a particular time in the past, but has an effect on that past time, we use the past perfect, e.g.

She had lost her job and was working as a waitress when I met her.

I didn’t go to the film with Adrienne because I had already seen it.

As the examples show, the past perfect usually refers to events or situations which are complete before a particular past time. However, with certain verbs it can sometimes be used to refer to an action or state which started in the past but still happened or existed at the past moment you are talking about, e.g.

She wanted to borrow my book but I hadn’t finished it.
She was my best friend. I had known her since we were small children.

Describing a sequence of past events

The past perfect is often used with the simple past when describing a sequence of past events.

The simple past form is usually used to describe a sequence of past events in chronological order, e.g.

Janice and Joan started running the children’s holiday club in September 2003. In July 2003 they moved into the local village hall and spent the summer preparing the rooms. On the 5th of September, the club opened for the first time.

However, if we want to refer to an event which happened before one of the past events in the sequence, in other words, an event which is out of chronological order in the description, we can use the past perfect, e.g.

Janice and Joan started running the children’s holiday club in September 2003. They had both given up their jobs as primary school teachers. In July 2003 they moved into the local village hall and spent the summer preparing the rooms. On the 5th of September, the club opened for the first time.

In this second description, the use of the past perfect indicates that Janice and Joan gave up their jobs as teachers before they started running the club in September 2003. So the actual order of events is:

  1. gave up jobs as teachers
  2. moved into the village hall
  3. spent the summer preparing
  4. the club opened/they started running the club

Whereas the order of events as they are mentioned is:

  1. started running the club
  2. gave up jobs as teachers
  3. moved into the village hall
  4. spent the summer preparing
  5. the club opened

When it is understood that we are talking about events which occurred before a past event, we don’t have to continue using the past perfect, e.g.

Janice and Joan started the club in September 2003. They’d given up their jobs as primary school teachers and they applied for a grant from the education authority. They got the grant and started making preparations in July.

would mean the same as:

Janice and Joan started the club in September 2003. They’d given up their jobs as primary school teachers and they had applied for a grant from the education authority. They had got the grant and had started making preparations in July.

Reporting past events

The past perfect is often used to report something that was originally talked about in the present perfect or past simple, e.g.

'I think I’ve lost my glasses.' I thought that I had lost my glasses.
'You haven’t grown very much.' When I last saw Alice I didn’t think that she had grown very much.
'Nobody died in the accident.' The police reported that nobody had died in the accident.
'He stole my wallet.' He admitted that he had stolen my wallet.

In the same way that the present perfect is often used with just to report events that occurred immediately before the present time, e.g.

Your parents have just arrived.

The past perfect is often used with just to talk about events that occurred immediately before a past moment in time.

I had just started eating dinner when they arrived.
I was feeling really tired because I had just finished work.

Other uses

Just as the past simple is often used to express an unreal situation in the present, e.g.

Imagine we were rich.

the past perfect is sometimes used to express an unreal situation in the past, e.g.

Suppose you had won the lottery.

The past perfect is often used in unreal conditional sentences to refer to an imaginary past action or state, e.g.

If she had taken a taxi, she would have arrived at the airport on time.

You would have passed your exams if you had done more revision.

I would have done your shopping if I’d known you were ill.

The past perfect is also often used to talk about things that we intended to do, but for some reason didn’t, e.g.

I had hoped to visit the Tate Gallery when I was in London, but it was closed.

or things that we intended to do, but because of a particular reason we won’t now do in the future, e.g.

She had planned to cook salmon for the dinner party, but Simon doesn’t like it.

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect can combine with the continuous aspect to form the past perfect continuous. The past perfect continuous is formed from auxiliary had + been + gerund, e.g.

I had been writing a letter.

She had been sleeping.

The past perfect continuous is used to talk about a situation or activity which was in progress up to or just before a past point in time, e.g.

We’d been travelling for three hours when the accident happened.

I’d been feeling ill all day so I went to bed at 7 o’clock.

Whereas the past perfect is used to talk about a finished activity before a past time, the past perfect continuous is usually used to emphasize the duration of a past activity before a past point in time. In other words, we can say that the past perfect focuses on the result of a past activity whereas the past perfect continuous focuses on the process. Compare:

I’d painted the gate and it looked much better. (result – past perfect)

I’d been painting the gate and my clothes were all messy (process – past perfect continuous).

The past perfect continuous can, however, be used to talk about a situation or activity that began before a particular past time and finished at that time or shortly before it, e.g.

We’d been walking for half an hour when Chris suddenly fell over.

and is often used to talk about a repeated activity in the past before a past point in time, e.g.

The doctor had been visiting her every week until his car broke down.

Sometimes the past perfect continuous can be used to talk about a situation or activity that began before a particular past time and continued beyond it, e.g.

I couldn’t eat any supper because I’d been feeling sick all day.

Note that since the continuous aspect focuses on situations in progress, and there is no concept of progression in verbs which describe states, the past perfect continuous cannot be used with stative senses of verbs, and the past perfect is used instead. Compare:

We’d been knowing Jackie for three years (incorrect)

We’d known Jackie for three years (correct)

Note also that the past perfect continuous cannot be used when reference is made to the number of times an event or situation occurred before a past point in time. In this case the past perfect must be used instead.

Compare:

I had been staying at the cottage twice before.
I had stayed at the cottage twice before

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Readers' comments (1)

  • This suffers from the common fault of giving stand-alone sentences with no time reference. Consider the above: "If she had taken a taxi, she would have arrived at the airport on time." It is said to be imaginary. Not true if it is discussing someone who on occasions took a taxi and on others did not. I.e. the taking of the taxi was in the past of the past. Sometimes she was on time, and on others not.

    There is a gramar rule that applies, but you never find it in any literature, not even in A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language. Just for fun, construct a mixed first third conditional (they are never in coursebooks). You will find that the third conditional component is always real, not imaginary.

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