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Concourse 2

The past perfect: the past embedded in the past

past

If you have studied other languages, you may have found this tense referred to as the pluperfect and it sometimes called that in English grammar, too.  Here, however, we'll use the usual term for it, the past perfect.


what?

What is the past perfect?

The past perfect (like all perfect forms) is a relational rather than absolute time marker.  That means that the tense is used to link actions or states in relation to each other, not set them at a particular time.

The past perfect tense refers to the past in the past or the past before the past.  For example:

  1. She had visited France often before then
  2. She had met him before and knew his reputation.
  3. They had spent the afternoon skiing and were looking forward to a rest.

A simple time line can make it clearer:

timeline

In fact, as sentence 1 above indicates, the past perfect often occurs without the past simple.  For example,

  1. He had arrived before me.
  2. Before lunch they had played cards.

Note, however, that some other past event or state is always implied in these circumstances.  In sentence 4, that implication is that I also arrived and in sentence 5, there is a clear implication that they ate lunch after they played cards.
In this way the past perfect stand in relation to the past in the same way that the present perfect stands in relation to the present.
In both these tenses, the prior event is embedded in a following event and alters it in some way.


form

Forming the tense

The simple form of the past perfect is not too difficult to grasp or to teach.  It works like this:

Type Form Examples
Affirmative subject + auxiliary + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] She had broken the glass
Mary had asked him
noun / pronoun had broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
Negative subject + negative auxiliary + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] I hadn't been to London
The weather hadn't been warm
noun / pronoun had not broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
Interrogatives auxiliary + subject + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] Had you seen my wallet?
Had the pub opened?
have / has noun / pronoun broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
negative auxiliary subject + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] Hadn't you finished it?
Hadn't the weather been lovely?
had not noun / pronoun broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun

The continuous or progressive form of the present perfect is slightly more complex.  It works like this:

Type Form Examples
Affirmative subject + auxiliary + been + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] She had been mending the glass
Mary had been asking him
noun / pronoun had breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
Negative subject + negative auxiliary + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] I hadn't been travelling to London long
It hadn't been raining
noun / pronoun had not breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
Interrogatives auxiliary + subject + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] Had you been running?
Had the pipe been leaking?
had noun / pronoun breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
negative auxiliary subject + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] Hadn't you been working hard?
Hadn't the rain been falling heavily?
had not noun / pronoun breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun

It is not the forms of the tense that are difficult to learn.  It is the concepts that are harder to grasp.


do

What does the past perfect do?

Two things (basically):

  1. To refer to the past within the past:
        He had met the man before and recognised him
        The horse had been raced hard and was exhausted

    etc.
  2. To distance the speaker from an event or state in the present:
        I had hoped I would see you
        I had meant to mention it

The tense is often conceptualised as referring to the time before the past rather than the past within the past.  Here we take the second, functional, view, that the tense serves to relate the past to another past and is the past set within the past rather than focusing on sequencing.

no 

When is the past perfect NOT used?

Consider these six sentences and the verbs in black:
Simple Perfect
  1. The rain was heavier than he expected.
  2. I couldn't light it because I lost the matches.
  3. I came after the match finished.
  1. The rain was heavier than he had expected.
  2. I couldn't light it because I had lost the matches.
  3. I came home after the match had finished.

On the left are the simple past forms of the verbs (expected, lost, finished) and on the right the past perfect forms (had expected, had lost, had finished).
What do you detect?  Click here when you have an answer.

yes

When should we use the past perfect?

When events or states are mentioned out of order:
Speakers and writers will often reverse the ordering of events to emphasise one of them.
It's fine to have
    He lived for 20 years in France and retired to England
using two simple past forms but if we reverse the order, the past perfect is usually necessary:
    He returned to England.  He had lived in France for 20 years or
    He returned to England after he had lived in France
or
    Before he returned to England he had lived in France
etc.
When we have a when-clause referring to a later (not simultaneous) event:
The conjunction when can connect simultaneous or consecutive events so, it's fine to have
    When he retired he went to England
because the events happened at the same time but when they don't, we usually need the past perfect to avoid ambiguity.  Compare:
    I made tea when they arrived
with
    I had made tea when they arrived
When the first past event has an immediate effect on the second:
    She had never seen him before that night
    They hadn't tried whisky before they went to Scotland
(*She never saw him before that night and *They didn't try whisky before they went to Scotland are both wrong.)
The reason for this is that the past perfect is a relative tense and relates an event before the past which has an immediate effect on the past just as the present perfect relates the past to the present.
For this reason, the adverbs just, already and yet (which are relational) often compel the use of the past perfect form.  For example:
    I had just finished the work when it started to rain
not
    *I finished the work when it started to rain
and
    Had you already finished the work when it started to rain
not
    *Did you already finish the work when it started to rain?
In causal subordinating clauses:
Especially with causal relationships, the past perfect is commonly used (although two past simple tenses are often possible)
    I made tea because they had arrived
    I didn't go because I had lost my ticket

But we can also have, e.g.,
    I arrived late because the car broke down on the way
where the ordering and causality is obvious.
The rule of thumb here is that it is never wrong to use the past perfect in these types of sentences.

progressive

the past perfect progressive

The past perfect progressive and simple forms are different in exactly the same way that the present perfect progressive differs from the present perfect simple.  (See the guide to aspect and the guide to the present perfect for more, both linked below.)

In brief, the progressive form emphasises the activity itself rather than the outcome.
Compare these and then click here for some comments:

  1. By the time I got there, she had succeeded in repairing the computer.
  2. By the time I got there she had been trying to repair the computer for hours.
  3. He had been gaining rapidly on the leader when the race finished.
  4. He had gained rapidly on the leader and finished second.

If you have followed the guide to the present perfect, the following will be familiar although the examples differ of course.  The uses of the simple and progressive aspects of the past perfect closely parallel those for the present perfect simple and progressive.

mountaineer

Activity vs. Achievement

We can use both tenses to refer to a past within the past so we can say either:
    He had climbed the mountain
or
    He had been climbing the mountain
but in the first we are emphasising his achievement (i.e., the outcome of his efforts) and in the second, the activity itself (i.e., the efforts themselves).
Another example may make things clearer.

achievement or outcome
If we say, e.g.:
    I had finished the report
the obvious sense is that it was now available for you to read, pass on to the boss, publish or whatever.
We are laying stress on the achievement which is relevant to the past.
If we say, too:
    I had taken my holidays in France for many years
we are suggesting that it is the outcome of the activity which carries the relevance to a following past event such as, for example, deciding to retire to France or take holidays elsewhere etc.
activity or effort
If, in contrast, we say:
    I had been finishing the report
we emphasise my activity, not the achievement and it is the activity which is relevant to the past and that explains why I was late home, had been out of touch or whatever.  In this case, the report is not the central issue, it is the activity which is important.
If we say, too:
    I had been taking a holiday in France
we are emphasising that the activity and explaining why, say, I had not been answering my emails or been available.

Similar examples can be used when the activity is what interests us, not any kind of achievement and it is the activity which serves to explain the past.  Here are three:
    I had been running (and was hot and tired)
    She had been drinking (and was not making sense)
    What had you been doing? (to get so dirty, tired, wet
etc.)

Semantic considerations

verb meaning and achievement
Some verbs contain within their meaning the sense of achievement or outcome.
If, for example, we say:
    She had succeeded
the use of the verb succeed usually prohibits the progressive form so we do not encounter:
    *She had been succeeding
because the verb itself refers to achievement not activity.
Equally, we do not find:
    *They had been accomplishing it
    *She had been realising it

and so on for similar reasons.
With verbs which imply any kind of achievement, the use of the progressive form is simply unnecessary (and usually wrong).
verb meaning and stative or dynamic use
The shorthand for this distinction is to think of stative and dynamic verbs and that is how it is often presented to learners.  A better way to consider it is to look at the meaning of a verb and ask whether its use in this meaning is stative or dynamic.
For example:
    I had often thought that the garden needs some work
is the use of the verb think to mean believe but:
    I had been thinking that the garden needs some work
is the use of the verb to mean deliberate or cogitate.
The rule is that when a verb is used statively, the progressive form is unacceptable.
Other pairings showing this distinction include:
    John had appeared a bit depressed recently
in which appear means seem and
    John had been appearing in The Importance of Being Earnest
in which the verb means act or perform.
    She had had the house for years
in which the verb have means possess, and
    She had been having an argument
in which the verb means conduct or take part in.
It follows logically that verbs which are very firmly tied to a state rather than an action, such as own, seem, look like, possess, believe, suppose etc. will not appear in the progressive form.
Other verbs, which are polysemous and can be used in both forms with a change in meaning include have, consider, think, appear, imagine, judge, look, occur etc. and may appear in either simple or progressive structures depending on the meaning intended.
(Rarely, even the verb be can fall into this polysemous category.  Normally, it cannot be used dynamically but in the sense of deliberate assumption of a characteristic, it can.  We allow, therefore:
    He has been being difficult for some time.)
adverbials and time / event markers
The distinction is clear here, too.
We can say, for example:
    I had flown across the Atlantic four times
    They had run six marathons
    She had often spoken about her schooldays

and so on because we are focused on the achievement or outcome of the actions.
Using the same forms with the progressive makes no sense because the focus of the progressive is on the efforts or activities, not the outcomes so we do not find:
    *I had been flying across the Atlantic four times
    *They had been running six marathons
    *She had often been speaking about her schooldays
end

Telicity

The term telicity is not something with which you should trouble learners but the concept is important to understand.
The question to ask is whether an event or action is seen as finished (that is to say, perfective [not perfect]) or whether there is no end point in sight.
The progressive form of the tense is used most frequently for events and actions which are seen as atelic, having no explicit finishing point and the simple aspect is used to refer to actions or events that are telic and, although finished, still refer to the past within the past.
Both forms refer to the past within the past.
For example:
    I had read the book
clearly implies that the action of reading was now finished but that the reading of the book is set in the past because it was relevant to our conversation in some way.
    I had been reading the book
on the other hand, means that the book was not finished.  It is still a past within the past in terms of relevance, of course.
Compare, too, for example
    She had been writing a letter but was unhappy with the wording
in which the action was incomplete (atelic) and may have been resumed and
    She had written a letter but was unhappy with the wording
in which the action is complete (telic) but still with relevance to the second past event.

aspect

Other aspects

The past perfect tenses, both simple and progressive are described as having a perfect aspect and by that it is meant that the tenses refer in some way to the past within the past.
This is true but the progressive form is also use to describe two other aspects which are not obvious by looking at the forms.

Iterative
This aspect refers to events or actions which are repeated, and that is what iteration means.  For example:
    John had telephoned me
implies a single past event set in the past to show its relevance to then (for example, that I had been told some news or whatever).
However:
    John had been telephoning me
implies a series of events of the same kind.  The sense is still of a past within the past but in this case we are concerned to show that the event was repeated so the form of choice is past perfect progressive (although it might be better referred to as past perfect iterative).
Durative
This aspect refers to events or actions which take a substantial time.  We are emphasising, then, the duration of the event or action.  For example:
    John had lived in London for many years
simply states a fact and sets the event in a past context so, for example, John was a good person to ask about the city.
However:
    John had been living in London for many years
means roughly the same but the speaker's emphasis is on the duration of the event, not the event itself.  Past relevance is maintained.
distance

Distancing

Using the past perfect progressive to distance oneself and sound tentative as in, e.g.,
    I had been hoping you might help
    I had meant to ask you ...
makes the speaker sound very diffident and polite indeed.

Summary of progressive vs. simple tense uses

compared

It makes sense, of course, to handle the distinctions piecemeal with learners rather than expecting them to absorb all this in a single sitting.


whisper

The past perfect in reported / indirect speech

Briefly, the past perfect is often used when we report something said in the past tense after the time of speaking.  So, for example
    "I bought it in London"
is reported as
    She said she had bought it in London.
However, if the object in question lies before us, the past perfect is not necessary, so the reporting can be
    She said she bought this in London
in which the use of this clearly implies that the object is before us.
If the direct speech is already in the past perfect, no changes can be made either to it or the following past simple form.
Therefore:
    "I had been running to catch the bus and was out of breath"
will be reported as
    She said she had been running for the bus and was out of breath

not as:
    *She said she had been running for the bus and had been out of breath
See the guide to reported/indirect speech for more on this.



Related guides
guide to English tenses for an introductory guide
the tenses map for the clickable diagram of all the English tense forms
the tenses index for links to all the guides in this area
Other tense forms
past forms for consideration of a ways of talking and writing about the past
reported / indirect speech to see how back-shifting works and when it is not done
present perfect for a guide to this area alone
aspect for the guide only concerned with this area
time, tense and aspect for the index to the whole area which considers perfect aspects in more detail