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Grammar Reference

Past perfect tense

Meaning and use

We often use the past perfect when two things in a sentence happened in the past, and we need to show which thing in the sentence happened first.

  • When I arrived home, my sister had already made lunch.  

Here, two things happened: I arrived home and my sister made lunch. We can use the past simple, with time expressions like then, to talk about the things in the order that they happened.  

  • My sister made lunch. Then I arrived home.

We can use the past perfect next to the past simple, to show which event happened first.  

What happened first: my son made a cake

What happened second: I arrived

  • When I arrived home, my son had already made an enormous carrot cake.

With the past perfect, we can change the order of events in the sentence, and still show what happened first.

  • I woke up late because I’d forgotten to set my alarm clock.

But we can also use the past perfect when events in a sentence are in the order that they happened.

  • I had just taken off my coat when the telephone rang.

The past perfect part of the sentence always shows the event that happened first.

  • We hadn’t finished cleaning by the time the guests arrived.
  • By the time the guests arrived, we hadn’t finished cleaning.

Form

The past perfect is made with subject + had/hadn’t + past participle.

Positive

  • When my parents got to the station, they realised they had left the tickets at home.
  • By the time Mark arrived at work, the staff meeting had already started.
  • I woke up late because I’d forgotten to set my alarm clock.

Negative

  • Kerry couldn’t leave work on time because she hadn’t written the report.
  • They didn’t tellthe police about the accident they had seen.

Question

  • Had you finished your homework before the movie started?
  • Hadn’t John told them what he wanted?

Take note: adverbs
Sometimes you might need to use an adverb like already or just with the past perfect. In those cases, the adverb often goes between had/hadn’t and the past participle.

  • When I arrived home, my sister had already made lunch.  
  • I had just taken off my coat when the telephone rang.

Take note: time expressions
The past perfect is often used with time expressions like when and by the time.

  • When I arrived home, my sister had made lunch.  
  • By the time I arrived at work, the staff meeting had already started.

Spoken English
You might notice that sometimes the past perfect looks like this:

  • I had left my season ticket at home.

Other times, it looks like this:

  • I’d forgotten to set my alarm clock.

In speech and in informal writing, it’s common to use a contraction with the auxiliary verb.

  • I’d forgotten to set my alarm clock.
  • I hadn’t written the report.

When you listen to someone using the negative form hadn’t, listen carefully. It is sometimes difficult to hear the difference between had and hadn’t, but it makes a big difference in meaning!