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How do we use the Past Perfect Tense?

The past perfect tense expresses action in the past before another action in the past. This is the past in the past. For example:

  • The train left at 9am. We arrived at 9.15am. When we arrived, the train had left.
The train had left when we arrived.
past present future
Train leaves in past at 9am.    
9   9.15

 
We arrive in past at 9.15am.    

Look at some more examples:

  • I wasn't hungry. I had just eaten.
  • They were hungry. They had not eaten for five hours.
  • I didn't know who he was. I had never seen him before.
  • "Mary wasn't at home when I arrived."
    "Really? Where had she gone?"

You can sometimes think of the past perfect tense like the present perfect tense, but instead of the time being now the time is past.

past perfect tense   present perfect tense
had |
done |
> |
have |
done |
> |

 
past now future   past now future

For example, imagine that you arrive at the station at 9.15am. The stationmaster says to you:

  • "You are too late. The train has left."

Later, you tell your friends:

  • "We were too late. The train had left."

We often use the past perfect tense in reported speech after verbs like said, told, asked, thought, wondered:

Look at these examples:

  • He told us that the train had left.
  • I thought I had met her before, but I was wrong.
  • He explained that he had closed the window because of the rain.
  • I wondered if I had been there before.
  • I asked them why they had not finished.

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