Simple Past or Past Perfect – English Tense Comparison

Introduction

The simple past and the past perfect, also past perfect simple, both express completed actions that took place in the past. We use the simple past to say what happened in the past, often in sequential order. We use the past perfect to look further back from a past point and say what happened before it. In spoken English, it is common to use only the simple past and not the past perfect.

Learn about the difference between the simple past and the past perfect in English grammar with Lingolia’s simple tense comparison chart. In the exercises, you can practise using these two English past tenses.

Example

Monica flew to London yesterday. As she had never travelled by plane before, she was a little nervous.

First she checked in, then she went to the gate. Finally the plane was ready for boarding and Monica got on the plane.

She had already fastened her seatbelt when the flight attendants gave the safety demonstration.

After the flight attendants had completed the safety demonstration, the plane took off.

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Usage

The chart below provides an overview of the differences between the English simple past and past perfect tenses.

Simple PastPast Perfect

narrative form for the past

Example:
Monica flew to London yesterday.
First she checked in and then she went to the gate.
Finally the plane was ready for boarding and Monica got on the plane.

look back to something that happened before a certain point in the past

Example:
As she had never travelled by plane before, she was a little nervous.
She had already fastened her seatbelt when the flight attendants gave the safety demonstration.
After the flight attendants had completed the safety demonstration, the plane took off.

Signal Words

Signal words can help us to recognise which tense to use in a sentence. Below is a list of signal words for the simple past and past perfect tenses.

Simple PastPast Perfect
  • first
  • then
  • already
  • up to then
  • before (that day)
  • after

After/before/when with Simple Past or Past Perfect

Simple PastPast Perfect
after

the verb does not appear in the clause with after (the clause with after has no verb)

Example:
After the safety demonstration, the plane took off.

the verb appears in the clause with after

Example:
After the flight attendants had completed the safety demonstration, the plane took off.
when

The action in the clause with when takes place after the action in the other clause.

Example:
She had already fastened her seatbelt when the flight attendants gave the safety demonstration.

The action in the clause with when had just been completed when the new action began.

Example:
When she had fastened her seatbelt, the flight attendants gave the safety demonstration.
before

The action in the clause with before began after the other action had been completed.

Example:
All passengers boarded/had boarded before the plane took off.

The action in the clause with before had not yet been completed when the other action began.

Example:
The plane took off before all passengers had boarded.

Conjugation

For information on the conjugation of these two tenses, see: