Past Perfect Tense in English Grammar

Introduction

The past perfect tense, also pluperfect tense, is used for actions that took place before a certain point in the past. It is often used together with the simple past tense. It is formed with the auxiliary verb had and the past participle of the main verb.

Learn how to conjugate the past perfect tense in English grammar and get tips on the correct usage. In the interactive exercises, you can test your grammar skills.

Example

Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet after she had made herself some porridge.

She had not eaten much of her porridge when a spider frightened her away.

If the spider had not frightened her, she would have finished her porridge sitting on her tuffet.

Advertisement

Usage

The past perfect tense is common in written English and storytelling. We use it together with the simple to express:

  • actions that took place before a certain time in the past
    (emphasises only the fact that something took place before a certain point in the past)
    Example:
    Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet after she had made herself some porridge.(based on the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet)
    She had not eaten much of her porridge when a spider frightened her away.
  • the 3rd conditional
    Example:
    If the spider had not frightened her, she would have finished her porridge sitting on her tuffet.

Learn more about the difference between the simple past and the past perfect or test your knowledge of the English past tenses.

Conjugation of English Past Perfect Tense

To conjugate the past perfect tense in English, we follow the rule: had + past participle. The table below shows the conjugation of positive, negative and interrogative sentences in the English past perfect tense.

positivenegativequestion
all forms are the same
I had played/spoken I had not played/spoken Had I played/spoken?

Past participle

Regular verbs are normally conjugated by adding -ed to the infinitive form of a verb. However, there are some exceptions to this rule:

  • Then a verb ends with in -e , we only add -d.
    Example:
    love – loved (not: loveed)
  • The final consonant is doubled after a short stressed vowel.
    Example:
    admit – admitted
  • The final consonant -l is always doubled after a vowel in British English but not in American English.
    Example:
    travel – travelled (British), traveled (American)
  • A -y at the end of the word is replaced by an -i.
    Example:
    hurry – hurried

Contractions

Contractions are a combination of certain pronouns, verbs and the word not. They are mostly used in spoken and informal written English. The table below provides an overview of contractions in the past perfect tense using the verb had.

long formcontractionexample
had …’d they’d
had not …’d not/… hadn’t I’d not/I hadn’t

Negated Contractions

In written English, we usually form contractions with a pronoun and an auxiliary verb, but not with a noun and an auxiliary verb.

Example:
She’d not eaten much of her porridge.
(but not: The girl’d/Little Miss Muffet’d not eaten much of her porridge.)

The negated contractions, in which the verb and not are combined, can always be used no matter what kind of word comes before them.

Example:
She hadn’t eaten much of her porridge.
The girl/Little Miss Muffet hadn’t eaten much of her porridge.

Signal Words

Signal words help us to recognise which tense is being used in a sentence. The signal words for the past progressive are listed below:

  • already, just
  • never, not yet
  • once, until that day
  • if-clause type III (If I had talked, …)

To Note

Some of the signal words for the past perfect are the same as those for the present perfect. The difference is that the signal words for the past perfect refer to the past and not to the present.