Past Perfect tense

Past Perfect tense - I had done

The Past Perfect tense is quite an easy tense to understand and to use. This tense talks about the "past in the past".

In this lesson we look at the structure and use of the Past Perfect tense, followed by a quiz to check your understanding.

How do we make the Past Perfect tense?

The structure of the Past Perfect tense is:

subject + auxiliary have + main verb
conjugated in Past Simple  
had past participle

The auxiliary verb (have) is conjugated in the Past Simple: had

The main verb is invariable in past participle form: -ed (or irregular)

For negative sentences we insert not between the auxiliary verb and the main verb.

For question sentences, we exchange the subject and the auxiliary verb.

Look at these example sentences with the Past Perfect tense:

  subject auxiliary verb   main verb  
+ I had   finished my work.
+ You had   stopped before me.
- She had not gone to school.
- We had not left.  
? Had you   arrived?  
? Had they   eaten dinner?

Contraction with Past Perfect

When we use the Past Perfect in speaking, we often contract the subject and the auxiliary verb. We also sometimes do this in informal writing:

I had I'd
you had you'd
he had
she had
it had
we had we'd
they had they'd
  • I'd eaten already.
  • They'd gone home.

In negative sentences, we may contract the auxiliary verb and "not":

  • I hadn't finished my meal.
  • Anthony hadn't had a day off for months.
The 'd contraction is also used for the auxiliary verb would. For example, we'd can mean:
  • We had, OR
  • We would
But usually the main verb is in a different form, for example:
  • We had arrived (past participle)
  • We would arrive (base)
It is always clear from the context.

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 9:00    
9:00 9:15  
We arrive in past at 9:15    

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 before.

  past present 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 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.
Josef Essberger, founder Contributor: Josef Essberger, founder of Originally from London, England, Josef is the author of several books for learners of English including English Prepositions List and Learn English in 7.
Updated: 2023