Should Past Perfect Tense Stand Alone: Understanding Proper Usage – Strategies for Parents

Should Past Perfect Tense Stand Alone: Understanding Proper Usage

Most are familiar with past, present, and future tenses. But outside of school, we stop consciously thinking about the effect of simple, continuous, and perfect forms, especially in our writing, which can make knowing which tense to use a little bit tricky. 

Contrary to popular belief, past perfect tense can stand alone without another clause. The basic formula when writing in past perfect form is: had + [past participle]. The past perfect does require a reference to a point in time in the past, but we can do that with a prepositional phrase.

The past perfect tense is a valuable element of English grammar, and you can use it for specific scenarios. For example, with the past tenses, you’ll have “John ate” as the simple past, “John was eating” as the continuous past, and “John had eaten before midnight” as the perfect past. 

To learn more, read on.

What Is the Past Perfect Tense?

You can use the past perfect tense to show that some action has been completed in the past. This creates a marker in time to show that the event or situation described is finished (perfected) and not continuing to the present moment.

There are two requirements to create the past perfect tense: the word “had” and the past participle form of the verb you wish to use (source). 

Past Participles

To understand the past perfect tense, you have to begin by understanding past participles.

Past participles require a few simple rules, which make it easy to spot or create one. First, you will always form a past participle from a verb. Second, it has to be in its past tense form. For example, “dream” becomes “dreamed” or “dreamt,” “kiss” becomes “kissed,” and “run” becomes “ran.”

But it’s not as straightforward as simply turning the verb into the past tense form. Past participles must have an auxiliary verb to precede them. Only two auxiliary verbs are necessary for past participles: “have” and “had.”

Finally, past participles generally end with -en, -ed, -d, -t, and -n, although there are variations when irregular verbs are involved.  

The past tense and the past participle form are the same with regular verbs, but that changes for irregular verbs. Examine the table below to see the differences between past tense and past participles:

VerbPast TensePast Participle
DrinkDrankDrunk
BeginBeganBegun
SpeakSpokeSpoken
EatAteEaten
ChooseChoseChosen

To discover more about past tense and other irregular verbs that might trip you up, read “Past Tense of Run: Understanding Regular and Irregular Verb Tenses.” It will help clear up any misunderstandings. 

You can use past participles to indicate an event that took place in the past but is no longer happening. 

For example, “She kissed him” is the simple past tense, meaning that a kiss had taken place in the past but could continue now. In contrast, “She had kissed him” suggests that the kiss took place in the past and is no longer happening.

More Examples: Simple Past and Past Perfect

  • She drank the milk. (simple past tense)
  • She had drunk the poison before the prince could arrive. (past perfect tense)
  • Casey spoke to the police officer, explaining what had happened. 

The last example is in the simple past tense before transitioning into the past perfect tense — note: the past perfect tense clause took place before the simple past tense.

When referring to past perfect tense, the auxiliary verb has to be “had.” However, when using past perfect continuous tense, we should insert “been” between “had” and the past participle.

Does Past Perfect Tense Require Another Verb?

Yes, for the past perfect tense to be correct, it requires the auxiliary verb “had” and a past participle, which is similar to a past tense verb. Beyond that, the past perfect tense does not need another verb.

Still, some people prefer to insert another clause within the sentence to indicate when the action stopped. With the addition of the clause, another verb would be necessary for the sentence to make sense.

In explanation, subjects will be purple while verbs will be in red

Example:

  • John had eaten before he went to the movies.

In the first clause, “John” is the subject, and “had eaten” is the past participle. This is an independent clause as it can stand alone and make sense. “Before” is the subordinating conjunction, indicating that the sentence that follows is the dependent clause.

In the dependent clause, “he” is a pronoun that refers to the subject “John,” and “went” is the verb that relates to his actions. 

However, you can also reference time with a prepositional phrase that does not contain a verb.

Let’s examine another sentence: 

  • They had met after the concert

This simple sentence presents one idea: two or more people meeting up after a show. The pronoun “they” identifies the subject of the sentence, and the past perfect tense gives us the past participle of “had” + the past participle form of “meet.”

This example clearly demonstrates that the past perfect form can stand alone without another verb.

Image by Cliff Johnson via Unsplash

Does Past Perfect Tense Require Another Clause?

When writing in the past perfect tense, you do not need another clause since we’ve established that you do not require another verb. However, in some scenarios, the second clause allows us to place the tense at a particular time period in the past (source).

Past Perfect Tense for Two Situations in the Past

Sometimes, we will use the past tense to indicate that two or more actions have occurred in the past.

Example sentences:

  • John and Marie went to the concert and then went out for dinner. 

The word “then” indicates which action took place first.

  • Sadie lived in Kansas and knew the area so well. 

In this example, the sentence does not state which action took place first.

When you insert the past perfect tense, it becomes easy to tell which action took place first, regardless of the sentence order.

Example sentences:

  • She had taken the item before anyone arrived at the party.
  • Before anyone arrived at the party, she had taken the item.
  • He called the store, but the iPhone had been sold.
  • The iPhone had been sold by the time he called the store.

As we demonstrated in the examples above, the sentences make sense in both forms. “She” took the item, and the store sold the phone — each respective event occurring first.

Ending at a Specific Time

Using the past perfect tense is a good way of showing that the action ends at a specific time in the past.

Example sentences:

  • Marisa had already learned six languages by the time she was a teenager.
  • Before the end of the hike, we had finished all of our snacks.
  • Once Caden had finished his painting, he took a shower.

Even though the events take place in the past, the past perfect tense indicates that one event occurred at a specific moment in time before the next event took place.

Before and the Past Perfect Tense

The subordinating conjunction “before” is a beneficial one to use with past perfect tense. It helps to show which event took place first and how the events relate to each other.

Example sentences:

  • Before she could stop him, James had eaten the whole cupcake.
  • I started cleaning the apartment before the party had ended.
  • Before I knew what was happening, the cat had pushed the glass off the table.

The conjunction “before” also allows the reader to understand that the subject did not complete an action before something else occurred.

Still, Already, Just, Never, and Ever — Adverbs

You will find that you can use certain adverbs more often with past perfect tense. 

Adverb Definitions:

Still: This refers to when something is continuing to happen.

Already: This refers to when something has been happening before or during the time mentioned.

Just: This refers to something that has happened in the recent past

Never: This refers to something that has not occurred in the past, nor will it take place in the future.

Ever: This refers to any moment of time.

When we use them with the past perfect tense, adverbs help to show when exactly an event took place.

Example sentences:

  • The package still hadn’t arrived.
  • When Mary got there, the play had already finished.
  • They had just moved in together when she got the job offer from Paris.
  • She stared at Joseph; she had never seen anyone so handsome in her life!
  • My friends hadn’t ever gone to this restaurant; I hoped they’d like it.

While writing in a consistent tense is simple, is it possible to mix different tenses in the same sentence? Read Can I Use Present Perfect and Past Perfect in the Same Sentence?” to answer that question.

There are indeed several ways to use past perfect tense, depending on the type of information that you’d like to share. But when exactly should you use past perfect tense? 

Image by Freestocks via Unsplash

When to Use Past Perfect Tense

The primary reason to use the past tense is to express ideas that happened in the past. But why use the past perfect when the simple past tense can work just as well?

You will use the past perfect tense primarily to show the order of events taking place. It helps explain when something happened, especially if there are no adverbs or conjunctions in the sentence to help communicate the order (source).

The past perfect tense is not necessary when only expressing one moment in time. Therefore, a sentence like “John had eaten,” while technically correct, would not be the proper usage of the past perfect tense.

The past perfect tense only shows when an event occurred compared to another point in time or another event. 

Past Perfect Tense in the Negative

To find out if something did not happen at a specific point in time, you may need to use past perfect tense in the negative form. If you need, you can also make the past perfect tense negative by inserting “not” between “had” and the past participle.

Example sentences:

  • Mary had not locked up the house before midnight.
  • The laptop wasn’t working, but John had not run the antivirus before looking at it.
  • I saw the message, but my roommate had not written the caller’s name.

Past Perfect Tense in the Interrogative Form

Sometimes, you may need to use the past perfect tense in an interrogative form to find out when exactly an event took place.

The particular formula for asking a question in the past perfect tense is different from the standard past perfect. To ask a question, you’ll start with “had” + subject + past participle.

Past Perfect FormInterrogative Past Perfect Form
Chris had eaten all the cake before the end of the party.Had Chris eaten all the cake before the end of the party?
I had spoken to him on the phone before we met.Had you spoken to him on the phone before you met?
They had drunk all the good stuff by midnight.Had they drunk all the good stuff by midnight?

Past Perfect Tense for Hypothetical Events

You can also use the past perfect tense to indicate an unreal or hypothetical event that could have happened but did not.

Example sentences:

  • If I had known about the accident, I would have visited her in the hospital. 
  • Ryan would have passed his driver’s test if he had not rolled.
  • I wish I had gotten some more sleep.

This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

There are specific reasons to use the past perfect tense, but it is primarily for clarity. Once you understand the past perfect tense, it is easier to express the order of events or when the subject completed an event. 

Final Thoughts

Past perfect tense can be confusing for a lot of people. But, as you’ve learned, it’s a relatively simple tense to find and write. Past perfect tense has an easy-to-remember formula, and if you’re careful with irregular verbs, you will never get it wrong.

Remember that the past perfect tense requires some indication of time, but it can stand alone without a second clause so long as you have a prepositional phrase to reference that time. With a time reference and as long as you have “had” and a past participle, then you are good to go.

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