We use the past perfect tense to explain actions that started and finished in the past, usually before another action in the past. Sometimes, people call the past perfect “The past of the past,” even though it describes an action that started and finished in the past, just like the simple past tense. So, now you’re left wondering: is past perfect necessary?
Past perfect is necessary if you’re writing or presenting in a professional or academic setting, as using the past perfect tense can give a lot of clarity to your explanations. Past perfect is not necessary if you’re only hanging out and chatting with friends or colleagues. Though it isn’t necessary for every situation to explain “the past of the past,” it does help your reader or listener.
We’ll review some of the most popular questions that people have about the past perfect tense and then at the perfect tenses in general. You’ll be able to use these tricky conjugations in no time!
Past Perfect Tense FAQs
Using the past perfect tense has always been a potentially confusing topic for native speakers and English language learners alike. Here, we’ve provided answers to some of the most common questions people ask about the past perfect tense.
What Is the Rule of Past Perfect?
You’ll use the past perfect tense when you want to show that one action happened in the past before another action. The first action — that is, the action that happened the furthest in the past — is the one that uses the past perfect.
You build the past perfect tense with the helping verb “had” plus the past participle form of the verb, which grammarians often refer to as verb 3 (source).
Let’s take a look at this example:
We had already left for the concert by the time you arrived at our house.
Here, you can see two actions: 1) We left for the concert, and 2) you arrived at our house.
Which one happened first? Well, we left for the concert before you arrived, so leaving for the concert occurred first. That’s why we use the past perfect to describe this action in our example.
Since the action “you arrived at our house” happened in the past after “we had left for the concert,” we use the simple past to describe that action.
So, when you want to use the past perfect tense, you should have two different actions that occurred at two different times in the past.
You’ll use the past perfect tense for the first action that occurred — the action that happened the furthest in the past. Then, you’ll use the simple past tense for the other action in the past — the one that occurred more recently.
For more on how to use the past perfect tense, check out our article “Eaten or Ate: Past Tense vs. Past Participle.”
Is Past Perfect Optional?
Using the past perfect is optional in that there are other ways to express the order of two actions in the past. For example, we use the past perfect tense to show that one action started and finished in the past before another action started in the past. This is clear from the past perfect verb tense.
However, if you want to show the order of those past actions another way — without using the past perfect, that is — you can use the time words “before” and “after.” If you use “before” or “after” to show the order of events in your sentence, then using the past perfect is optional.
Can We Use Past Simple Instead of Past Perfect?
When you’re in an informal situation, such as chatting with friends or writing a quick message to a coworker, it’s totally fine to use the past simple tense instead of the past perfect tense (source).
For clarity’s sake, you can add a time word like “before” or “after” to make your sentence more detailed.
However, it’s better to use the past perfect tense in a formal report or presentation since it helps clarify the order of events in the past.
When you use the past perfect tense to show the time relationship between two past events, you’re offering your reader or listener the most specific explanation of the events.
What Are Some Past Perfect Tense Examples?
Here are a few examples of the past perfect tense in action. Pay attention to the conjugation of the verb and the time words we use with the past perfect tense!
- We had already eaten by the time you invited us for dinner.
- The timer stopped, but the runner hadn’t crossed the finish line yet.
- After Mike had finished his homework, he started playing video games.
- Before graduating from high school, Mary had already saved a lot of money.
Can We Use Past Perfect Alone?
In most formal settings, a verb in the past perfect tense will usually come with another verb in the simple present tense or a reference to a specific time in the past. This is because the past reference time should be clear when you use the past perfect tense.
There’s a significant exception to this rule: if you’re answering a question where the simple past tense verb is already clear, you only need to include the past perfect in your answer.
For example, if your friend asks, ”Why didn’t you eat at the party last night?” you can reply, “I’d already eaten.” In this case, the reference point in the past — the party last night — is already clear from the question, so you only need to include the past perfect verb in your answer.
For more tips and examples for how to use the past perfect tense, check out our article “Should Past Perfect Tense Stand Alone: Understanding Proper Usage.”
What Are Past Perfect Time Words?
The most popular time words in the past perfect tense are “before,” “after,” “already,” and “yet” (source). These words help keep the order of past actions nice and clear when we use the past perfect tense.
Even though the past perfect tense already gives your listener or reader information about the order of past events, you can use “before” and “after” to make that order extremely clear.
For example, if you say, “We had cleaned the vegetables before we started cutting them,” then the order of cleaning the vegetables first and then cutting them is abundantly clear.
You can also use the word “already” to emphasize the past perfect tense. For instance, when you say, “We had already eaten when we arrived at the party,” you’re highlighting the fact that you ate before you came to the party.
Remember, you can only use “already” with the positive form of the verb. If you want to express the same concept of time with the negative form of the verb, you should use the word “yet.” So, your sentence reads, “We hadn’t eaten yet when we arrived at the party.”
Again, the time word “yet” emphasizes the fact that you came to the party without eating.
Another popular time phrase for the past perfect tense is “by the time.” This phrase stresses that the action expressed with the past perfect tense was already complete before the next activity or event started.
With these time words, you’ll be better able to identify and use the past perfect tense correctly.
Perfect Verb Tenses: All You Need to Know
The perfect verb tenses are usually the most difficult to master. One reason for that is because, with some of the perfect tenses, like future perfect continuous, we don’t use them very frequently at all.
Another thing that can get complicated with the perfect tenses is the concept of time and order. We’re usually pretty good at thinking about the past, for example, but our minds get a bit scrambled when we try to work out the past of the past.
Let’s take a look at some of the basic questions surrounding the perfect verb tenses in general, and then we can work through some explanations to clear up the whole topic.
What Is a Perfect Verb Tense?
A perfect verb tense shows that an action has been perfected: that is to say, the action is totally complete. This means that the perfect tense necessarily implies an action that happened in the past.
So how do we have a present perfect and future perfect verb tense? Well, in English, these “present” and “future” markers refer to the reference point of the action that you’re describing with the perfect tense.
This means that if you use the present perfect tense, you’re using the present — right now — as your reference point for the perfection or completion of the action. For the future perfect tense, the reference point for the action’s perfection or completion is later on, after now, in the future.
For more about using the perfect tenses in your speaking and writing, check out our article “Can I Use Present Perfect and Past Perfect in the Same Sentence?”
What About Perfect Continuous Tenses?
We use the perfect continuous tenses in English to show an action that started in the past and continues until the time of reference. So, in the present perfect continuous tense, the action started in the past and continues until now.
An example of the present continuous tense is, “I have been working in this company for three years.” This verb arrangement means that I started working at the company three years ago, and the action of working at the company has continued until now (the present).
In the case of the past perfect continuous tense, the time of reference is in the past. You can explain this time of reference with an action in the past simple tense or a specific time in the past.
For example, check out this sentence: “I had been working at the company for three years by the time I got a promotion.” This means that the act of working at the company started three years before the promotion and continued throughout that time.
For the future continuous tense, the time of reference is in the future. The formula is “will have been” plus verb+ing. It describes an action that has either already started or will start in the future and will continue until the time of reference.
For instance, “By 2025, I will have been working at this company for 10 years.” The time reference is in the future, and the action of working at the company started and continued for the 10 years prior to that reference.
The perfect continuous tenses are the least popular in English. However, it’s still important to be able to use them in just the right situation!
How Can I Conjugate Perfect Verbs in English?
All of the perfect tenses in English require the helping verb “to have.” Before adding the main verb to this helping verb, you need to conjugate “to have” appropriately for your subject and time.
For example, if you’re using the present perfect, you’ll first conjugate “to have” in the simple present tense according to the number and person of the subject. Then, you’ll add the past participle form of the main verb (sometimes called verb 3), and that’s the present perfect tense!
To conjugate or build the past perfect tense, you need to use the helping verb “had” plus the past participle form of the main verb.
The helping verb “had” stays the same, no matter what the number or person of the subject is. This consistency means that every time you use past perfect tense, the verb will have the helping verb “had” plus verb 3.
For the future perfect tense, you’ll use the future form of “to have,” which is “will have.” This helping verb, like all verbs in the simple future tense, doesn’t change according to the subject’s person or number. So, for the future perfect tense, every subject can use “will have” plus verb 3.
For the perfect continuous tenses, the formula is just a bit different. Like the other continuous tenses, the recipe includes the verb “to be” plus the “verb+ing.” However, in this case, the verb “to be” comes after the helping verb “to have,” so “to be” will take the verb 3 form, which is “been.”
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
That’s why all of the perfect continuous cases use the correct conjugation of “to have” plus “been verb+ing.”
In informal settings, like when you’re talking with your friends or sending a quick message to your colleagues, it’s not really necessary to use the past perfect tense.
However, you can use time words like “before” and “after” to make your message clearer with the simple past tense. That way, your reader or listener knows the order of events in the past.
In a formal setting, such as a report or presentation, it’s best to use the past perfect tense where it’s applicable. The past perfect tense gives your readers and listeners a clear understanding of the order of events and actions in the past.