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To begin, the past perfect tense could simply be defined as the past of the past.
- It indicates that an action had happened before a given time in the past where
another action happened.
- It describes an action completed before a defined past moment.
- It describes an action that comes before another action in the past.
- It describes a past action that began and ended before another action in the
Subj. + had + verb in the past participle.
She had taken her medicine.
They had played a chess round.
Subj. + had + not + verb in the past participle.
She hadn’t taken her medicine yet, when the doctor arrived.
They hadn't understood the lesson yet.
Had + subj + verb in the past participle.
Had her mother been there when the doctor arrived?
Had they told you the story?
The problem for most students is when they encounter an irregular verb they
didn’t know. But as for regular verbs they constitute no challenge as the form
is always “verb+ed” because of the no-inflexion of the regular verbs in the
past and past participle.
How are all these details used to make correct utterances? Look at these two
sentences. We need to combine them to tell which of the two actions comes
Leila took her umbrella. She went out.
Now observe how we can decide which action of the two (take the umbrella)
or (go out) comes first:
Clearly because of the rain,
Leila had taken her umbrella before she went out.
Before she went out, Leila had taken her umbrella.
This way we place the events in their correct chronological order of action in
Let me borrow something for you from the Moroccan traditional eating habits.
In Morocco, we generally eat couscous with bare hands. So we always have to
wash our hands before and after eating.
Last night Hadj Brahim ate couscous. He washed his hands.
Here I want you to tell me which of the two actions (eating couscous) or
(washing hands) was the first? You cannot unless you use the past perfect
tense with the simple past tense.
If I want to combine the two sentences, I need to show if the washing was
before or after the eating of couscous.
Last night Hadj Brahim had washed his hands before he ate couscous.
Last night after Hadj Brahim had washed his hands, he ate couscous.
In these two sentences, thanks to the use of the past perfect tense, I could
understand that the action of washing comes before the action of eating and
the two actions occurred in the past.
Now contemplate these
Last night when Hadj Brahim had eaten couscous, he washed his hands.
In this case, the action of (eating couscous) comes first. Amazing! No?
In time clauses, the past perfect tense is used when a past action followed
another. But generally the lapse of time which separates the two actions is not
defined. Let’s take the example above and try to show how much time (long or
short) had elapsed before the following action took place.
Hadj Brahim washed his hands. He ate couscous.
To do this we have to use the right linkers. OK, there are many connectors that
can join the two sentences together and we have seen three so far, notably
before, after and when. And these only show that a given action had occurred
before another. Now if we want to stress the fact that the time elapsed before
the second action happened is very short, we can call upon other linkers
1. No sooner had Hadj Brahim washed his hands than he ate couscous.
(pay attention to the order of words here)
2. As soon as Hadj Brahim had eaten couscous, he washed his hands.
Things go very fast. The lapse of time separating action one (washing hands)
and (eating couscous) is almost unmentioned. Likewise the time separating
actions one and two in example (2) is very short.
The combination of two past actions can be done with till or until.
1. They had kept silent till the teacher came.
2. They hadn't left until the bell rang.
More examples:
We had left the room before he finished his speech.
He read the book after he had seen the film.
I had no sooner arrived home when I dropped asleep.
No sooner had Leila left the car than it started to rain.
As soon as they had left the bank, they jumped into a luxurious car.
She had waited until the doctor arrived.
They hadn't told me anything until they finished dinner.
The past perfect tense could be used in situations such as:
To show that an action happened before another in the past.
After she had written the letter, she went out to post it.
She wanted to know why he had broken her toy.
They had already eaten all the food when I returned.
She thought she had seen something like that before.
To show cause and effect.
Leila didn't succeed because she hadn’t taken the final exam.
She went back home as she had forgotten to close the door.
To report a speech:
Leila said, "I bought a new bracelet"
Leila said that she had bought a new bracelet.
She wondered why her toy had been broken.
Be careful about the use of the past perfect tense:
When I had been a child, I could ride bicycles.*
When I was a child, I could ride bicycles.
In order to be precise in your use of the past perfect indicating the sequence of
events, one has to be more careful about the meaning than about the
grammatical structure:
1. After I had watched the film, the lights went out.
2. Before I watched the film, the lights had gone out.
In these two pairs of sentences, the use of the past perfect tense in the "after"
and "before" clauses is to be carefully prepared for the sake of meaning.
In example (1) the speaker did watch the film; whereas in example (2) he
didn’t because the lights were already out.
"After" is formally followed by a perfect tense.
After she had read the message, she left hurriedly.
"Before" is generally followed by simple past.
Before she heard the news, she had been calm.