The Past Perfect

In this lesson you’ll learn how the perfect tense is used with the past tense as the past perfect.

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Lesson: Defining The Moment

Note: you may have already read this article in The Past Continuous lesson, so you can skip over it if you’re sure the concept is clear to you.

When we use the present tense in any combination of simple and complex tenses, the moment in time that we’re talking about is very clear – right now, at the moment spoken.

When we use past and future tenses, however, the moment we’re talking about is not clear. Adverb or adverb phrases can be used to tell us this, but all we know from past and future tense constructions is that their verbs happened or were before or will happen or be later.

I surfed once.
I’ll try to remember that.

As long as we stay in the simple, adverb phrases give enough information for complete meaning. A lot of the time we don’t need to know when, or can guess well enough, and if we do need to know, the speaker can tell us.

It isn’t enough though if we use either the perfect or the continuous tenses. The reason is that both of these tenses are relative, meaning that they compare two time periods. The perfect says that we have a result at some moment because of activity of the verb before that moment, and the continuous tells us that the verb was happening at some particular moment and was longer than that moment.

Unless we’re in the present, when the base time is obvious (now), we need to define the base time somehow because it’s too confusing for people to try to think about a complex time relationship to an unknown time or event. It might be the closest thing in language to the situation in algebra where you have too few equations for multiple unknowns.

a + b = 7
b = ?

There’s no way to know this. We have to SET the perfect and continuous in time somewhere, and if you aren’t in the present tense, you do that by defining the moment.

There are two ways to define the moment for the past and future perfect and/or continuous.

One is just to state the time.

I was sleeping at 3 a.m. last night.
By 5 a.m. last night I had slept for 7 hours.

I will be sleeping at 3 a.m. tonight.
By 5 a.m. tonight, I will have slept for 7 hours.

The other is to describe something that happened in the past or will happen in the future.

I was sleeping when the sun came up.
I had slept for 7 hours when the sun came up.

I will be sleeping when the sun comes up.
I will have been sleeping for 8 hours when the sun comes up.

Notice that the events in the past sentences are given in the past simple, while the ones in the future sentences are given in the present simple. Why is that?

The answer is that there isn’t truly a future tense in English, only constructions that mean the future, which can be put in either the present or past [if past, then future perfect].

Note that whether you need to define the time in your speech or writing depends on the context. It only has to be defined somehow, and this can be by another person or in any other way from the circumstances.

Exercise: Exercise - Present Perfect Or Past Perfect Or Past Simple -- Developing Result Now Or Result At A Past Defined Moment?

  1. When we got to the stadium, the game ____________________ (to start), but the first half ____________________ (to not end) yet.

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    had started / hadn’t ended

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    commentary

    For “start” and “end” the actions of the verbs have results at the defined moment “when we got to the stadium”.

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  2. Up until that day, he ____________________ (to always be) on time for meetings.

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    had always been

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    commentary

    At the defined moment “that day” there is a result from the activity of the verb (perfect “on time” record, or considered very dependable, for example).

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  3. He ____________________ (to pass) the state exam for law in 2008.

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    passed

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    commentary

    Past perfect doesn’t fit because there is nothing happening before the moment of passing the exam, so we don’t have something happening before something else. The present perfect also does not fit because while we may sense that we have some kind of result, there’s no context given in which passing that exam is a part of a developing result. So the past simple is the correct tense for this sentence.

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  4. While we were in the tip of Argentina, we ____________________ (to run) into a colony of penguins.

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    ran

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    commentary

    “Run into” has a meaning like to “come across” “encounter” etc. Everything is in the past in this one, with no connection to the present, so the answer will be either past simple or past perfect. The answer is past simple because we don’t have something happening before something else, but one thing happening in the course of, during, in the middle of something else, and therefore, do not have the past perfect condition.

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  5. I ____________________ (to work) on this email all this morning. It’s 11:30 already.

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    have worked

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    commentary

    From the statements made and words used, we know that it’s still morning and that most likely we haven’t finished writing the email. We therefore have a result that is developing at the present moment and should use the present perfect.

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  6. That trip was her first time on a plane. She ____________________ (never actually to fly) before that.

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    had never actually flown

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    commentary

    The first sentence gives us our defined moment, and before this defined moment we have a result (count of flights, travel history biography, the novelty of flying, etc.) that results from her having not flown.

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  7. He ____________________ (to never see) the northern lights, but thinks that they must be a lot more impressive to see in person than in photos or video.

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    has never seen

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    commentary

    The activity of the verb, “not having seen” has a result (the count of the number of times seen, his things seen biography, the novelty that the experience would still offer him, ect.). The result is now and still developing – the latter, because he presumably can still see them. If he were blind at the time speaking or serving a life sentence in a prison nowhere near where the northern lights phenomenon ever occurred with little hope of being escape or transfer to a prison in close enough proximity, then the past simple would be the more appropriate because in this case, the result would not be developing.

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  8. When we got to the theatre, the last performance ____________________ (to just end), so the area was crowded with people leaving.

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    had just ended

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    commentary

    At a defined moment “got to the theatre” we have a result “crowded area” from a prior action “end”.

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  9. I ____________________ (to not wash) my hair in days, so it’s starting to get noticeably greasy.

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    haven’t washed

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    commentary

    We have a result now from the verb “wash” not happenning – count of the number of days not washed.

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  10. My hair was starting to get greasy a few days ago because I ____________________ (to not wash) it for days before that.

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    had not washed

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    commentary

    At a past defined moment “a few days ago” we had a result from the action of a verb prior to that moment “not washing” – the conditions we look for for the past perfect.

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  11. ____________________ (to end up) going to the event last night?

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    end up

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    To “end up” doing something means that you followed through with some plans or intentions. There are no conditions for either the present or past perfect here – no developing result and no result at a defined moment from a prior verb, so we are describing a simple past action and use the past simple.

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  12. She didn’t want to think about tenses any more because she ____________________ (to already study) them so many times, but she ____________________ (to find) the right system and the Nth time was the charm.

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    had already studied / had found

    commentary

    This, hopefully, is the experience you are having with my learning system. At least this is my intention. “Nth” is a term we us in match to describe the last event or observation in a series. At our defined moment “didn’t want” we have results from the prior actions “study” and “find” (tense fatigue and it being worthwhile to study tenses one more time), so the past perfect, and only the past perfect, fits.

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  13. I ____________________ (to have) too much to drink. I think I’m drunk.

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    have had

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    commentary

    We have a developing result now, which is the amount that I have had to drink, and so should use the present perfect.

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  14. I ____________________ (not to drive) home, but took a taxi, because I’d had to much to drink.

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    didn’t drive

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    commentary

    The trick in this problem is to see that “not to drive” is for the defined moment – the past perfect part being given later in the sentence (‘d had).

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