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Learn to Use Past Perfect like a Pro

Past perfect is the past of the past.

Here is a picture of that:

past perfect1

Now let’s study an example:

past perfect3

The action in the past is: “they divorced.”

Before that, this couple was married three years.

That they were married is the earliest action, so you put that in the past perfect: They had been married for 3 years.

The past perfect is made like this: Had + the third form of the verb.

What’s the third form of the verb?

If it’s a regular verb, such as talk, walk, shop, dance, live, the third form of the verb is the same as the second form, which is with –ed. So the examples will be: talked, walked, shopped, danced, and lived.

If the verb is irregular, the third form can be different. Examples are: read (from read), driven (drove), gone (go).

Follow this link to find a list of irregular verb forms.

Another example:

past perfect2

Again, there are two actions in the past:

1 I arrived.

2 The meeting started.

“The meeting started” is the oldest action, so that should be in the past perfect: “The party meeting started.”

“I arrived” stays in the past simple.

Sentences with Two Things in the Past

Often, the past perfect will come in a sentence where there is something else that happened in the past, but it doesn’t have to be. You may also find a hint that something happened at an earlier point in another sentence.

Here is an example of that:

Account manager wasn’t Frederic’s first job. He had been a sales officer before that.

Which are the two actions in these sentences?

1 Account manager wasn’t Frederic’s first job.

2 He was a sales officer.

Which came first? That he was a sales officer. So this should be in the past perfect: “He had been …”

Another example:

Here are two actions:

The rose bush grew five meters high. We decided to cut it.

Which came first: that the rose bush grew five meters high, or that we decided to cut it? That the rose bush grew tall. Right?

So this should be in the past perfect: The rose bush had grown five meters high.

Now we can make one sentence:

When the rose bush had grown five meters high, we decided to cut it.

Or:

After the rose bush had grown five meters high, we decided to cut it.

Or:

By the time the rose bush had grown five meters high, we decided to cut it.

Last example before you can get some practice of your own:

She had already read the book before she saw the movie.

Why is “She had read” in the past perfect?

Because it’s the earliest action. First she read the book. Then she saw the movie. So “had read” is in the past perfect.

You could also change this sentence to:

She saw the movie after she had already read the book.

As you can see, it doesn’t matter how you arrange the sentence. The earliest action still remains in the past perfect.

Practice

Use the past perfect of the verb in brackets ().

Do the exercise online here. 

1 After they __________ (eat) too many cherries, they felt sick.

2 Before he joined the table, he __________ (make) a couple of phone calls.

3 By the time he joined the table, his friends ___________ (already finish) the soup.

4 She remembered his face, because they _____________ (meet) before.

5 She didn’t remember his name, though, because she __________ (forget) it.

6 I missed my bus, because I __________ (stop) to chat with my neighbour on my way to the bus stop.

7 The family had to move out of the house, because they ________ (not pay) the rent.

8 By the time he was ready for his driving test, he ____________ (take) some 40 lessons.

9 Sheila was very angry, as she ____________ (lose) 50 bucks playing poker.

10 As soon as Warren ____________ (finish) his studies, he moved to London.

Want to practise more?

Here are some older exercises on the website that also use past perfect:

(Intermediate)

(Expert)

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