Finally Understand How the Past Perfect Works

Finally Understand How the Past Perfect Works

In this lesson, you’re going to finally understand the past perfect in English FOREVER (probably). Want more tricky English grammar? Check out Mixed Conditionals in English Made Easy.

It doesn’t happen often.

But it does sometimes.

You’re telling someone a story in English.

It’s going really well — you’ve got the right vocabulary and wonderful phrases. You’re even throwing in a few nice idioms.

The person you’re telling the story to looks happy and interested. Like this:

Interested stick figure

But then something happens:

The timing of your story gets confusing.

You want to talk about things that happened before some things but after other things.

But you can’t — you’re just stuck using the past tense.

Now the person you’re telling the story to looks confused. Like this:

Confused stick figure

You know why this is happening, right?

You need to be able to use the past perfect WELL!

But before you can get to the true spirit of the past perfect, you need to understand how “time frames” work in English.

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How “time frames” work in English

Here’s the line of time, and here we are, in the present, having a nice conversation:

English timeline

In many languages, when you’re talking about the past, you can just look back down the line of time and talk about the past. So you use the past tense, and everyone’s happy.

But in English, there’s an annoying wall blocking the view:

English timeline with wall

This causes problems.

When you talk about the past in English, the listener expects the time of your story to be clear from the beginning.

She can’t see past the wall:

Timeline with woman trying to look around wall

And she doesn’t have a clear picture of your story. It needs to be clear when it all happened:

Timeline with woman shouting "When?!"

So, more so than many other languages, we have the concept of “time frames” in English.

This means that when you’re telling a story or using the past tense in any way, it needs to be clear when the story happened.

You can do this by simply saying it:

“You won’t believe what happened to me yesterday! I saw Raymond. He was taking his giant cat out for a walk.”

Or, more likely, the time frame came up earlier in the conversation:

“Where did you go to university?”
“Oh, Portsmouth.”
“And how was it?”

(The time frame here isn’t a day or a year. It’s just “your university time.”)

When we’re talking about the past, there’s always this time frame — the time of your story.

So here’s Ranjit telling Suzie about a crazy night he had with his friend Karen:

One night about a year ago, I was with Karen, and we saw this guy carrying a traffic cone.

The time frame for his story is “one night about a year ago.”

Fine — everyone’s happy.

But very often we want to develop the story and start talking about things that happened later.

So we move the time frame:

When we left the pub, we saw the traffic cone and decided to take it.

And that’s fine. That’s how we all communicate. We talk about different things that happened in our lives that are connected to each other.

And we can go ahead and keep changing the time frame and keep using the past tense:

When I woke up, I saw it in my bedroom.

But in English, we can only do this when we go forward in time.

Here’s an example of why the past simple tense doesn’t work when you try to go backwards:

“Last weekend, we visited one of our friends. He bought a house.”

In this story, my student visited his friend, and immediately they went out and the friend bought a house.

But that’s not what he meant.

I’m guessing that his friend bought the house BEFORE my student visited him.

So we can’t jump back with the past simple.

Collecting from the past

So what happens when we’re telling a story, and we want to go back in time?

Yep — you guessed it. This is when we use the past perfect. That’s exactly what it’s for!

So let’s go back to the first part of Ranjit’s story. But this time Suzie has a question:

"I was with Karen, and we saw this guy carrying a traffic cone." "Had you met this guy before?"

Why the past perfect?

She was jumping outside the time frame, asking a question about something that happened before it.

It’s like she’s using the past perfect to “lift” some information from outside the time frame.

Here’s another example from the second part of the story:

When we left the pub, we saw the traffic cone -- the same one we'd seen before -- and decided to take it.

Again, Ranjit is lifting information from before the time frame.

One more example?


When I woke up, I saw it in my bedroom. Then I remembered what had happened.

Different ways to use the past perfect

So now you know how the past perfect works.

But we need to see it in action a little bit, right?

Fortunately we don’t actually use the past perfect very often. It’s not very common to “jump backwards” in our stories — we usually just go forwards.

But there are five common structures we can often find the past perfect in:

Different ways to use the past perfect #1 — with “when,” “by,” etc.

You probably first came across the past perfect at school in a neat sentence like this:

“When I got home, she’d already left.”

“By the second half, Scotland had already scored 9 goals.”

This is a classic way of using the past perfect.

It’s classic because we can see clearly both the time of the story (“When I got home …”) and the “lifted” information (“… she’d already left.”)

It’s neat, right?

But it’s not the most common example of the past perfect.

When I notice the past perfect, it’s usually used in one of these other ways:

Different ways to use the past perfect #2 — with relative clauses

A much more common way to use the past perfect is with relative clauses.

Past perfect example sentence: "Looking at the bike, I realised it wasn't the same one I'd been using for the last two years."

Some more examples:

We saw the guy who’d been playing guitar in the street earlier that day.

Then she finally told me what she’d wanted to say all day.

Different ways to use the past perfect #3 — in context

Of course, when we look at a past perfect sentence, usually the “time frame” has been established long before.

That’s how conversations work, right? We start talking about something, and we’re locked into the time frame. So we don’t need to say it in each sentence — it’s just there:

“Wow — what a strange day at work.”
“What happened?”
“Well, you know Tony, yeah?”
“Oh yeah — the one with the weird thingy,”
“Yep. Tony. Well, he stopped me in the corridor.”
“Eugh, creepy.”
“Yeah. He’d been giving me strange looks all day.”
“Ew… more creepy.”
“Yeah — but it’s not what you think. He asked me to look after his kids over the weekend!”
“What?! He’s got kids? Tony?”
“Yeah I know! Total surprise!”

Different ways to use the past perfect #4 — when reporting speech

Although we don’t use the past perfect very much when telling stories, it IS quite common when we’re reporting what someone said.

Now, I want to be a little careful here, as reported speech is quite a complicated thing — we use it in a lot of different ways and ALWAYS break the rules.

But when we’re reporting what someone said in the past, about the past, then we can use the past perfect:

Past perfect in reported speech example: "She said she'd met the president of Mars."

A couple more examples:

“But you told me you hadn’t met before!”

“She asked me what I’d said about her to the cops.”

Different ways to use the past perfect #5 — talking about the unreal past

Here’s a strange thing about English: when we talk about something that isn’t real, we usually signal that it’s not real by “pushing” the grammar one step to the past.

So that means present becomes past, and past becomes — you guessed it — past perfect:

Past perfect after wish: "I wish I'd finished university."

So what kinds of sentences does this happen in?

Good question!

It usually happens in “I wish” and “if only” sentences:

“I wish you hadn’t bought all these corn flakes. We’re never going to finish them!”

“If only I’d been born in Norway. Best education levels in the world!”

We also use it in third conditional sentences — the “if” structure that is both unreal and in the past:

“Yeah. If I’d been here at the time, I would’ve helped.”

OK, but what about my student’s sentence from earlier in the lesson?

“Last weekend, we visited one of our friends. He bought a house.”

Can you fix it?

Answers in the comments!

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13 thoughts on “Finally Understand How the Past Perfect Works

  1. Last weekend, we visited one of our friends who had just bought a house. He said he’d been hoping to buy one but couldn’t have afforded it. As luck would have it, he’d won the lottery! So he’d finally got to have his own place and there we were at his new house.

    I made things up because I wanted to practise more 🙂 Thank you for the great post. I like it, as usual!

    p.s. Could you please reply to the latest comment here when you have time?

    I feel I often think about grammar the most complicated way possible, so the question I threw may be the case.

  2. Thank you Gabriel!
    Ah… if only all English tenses were that simple, er… I mean logical. And as always I’ve got lots of favourite (in addition to Lizzie Borden gal) examples — that’s the first couplet from ‘Mmm (4x)’ by Crash Test Dummies. By the way, the second one is ‘would‘ as ‘refuse’.
    Plus: “How long had they been seeing each other before they got married?”, “I felt like (my) world had ended.”, “That did not go at all how I’d planned.” , “I was embarrassed I’d lost my temper.”, “I realized I’d been given a second chance.” (Passive Voice)…

    1. Great stuff Abigail!

      I would make one small change to the last sentence. In this sentence you’re shifting the time frame back to the present — to now. So it’d sound a bit better if you said “Have you seen it?”

      This is a great example of how often we shift the time frame in English. 🙂

  3. Last weekend,we visited one of our friends . He had bought a house. Years, he had been working hard to collect enough money to buy a big house as that one. Now when finally he has, its time to party.

  4. “Last weekend, after our friend had bought a house, we visited him”.
    Correct me if I’m wrong pelase 🙂

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