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:
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:
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.
How “time frames” work in English
Here’s the line of time, and here we are, in the present, having a nice conversation:
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:
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:
And she doesn’t have a clear picture of your story. It needs to be clear when it all happened:
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?”
“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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Again, Ranjit is lifting information from before the time frame.
One more example?
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.
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.”
“Well, you know Tony, yeah?”
“Oh yeah — the one with the weird thingy,”
“Yep. Tony. Well, he stopped me in the corridor.”
“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:
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:
So what kinds of sentences does this happen in?
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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