Past Perfect SIMPLE

CC-BY-SA Nina Paley

Earlier past’ – we use it to make it clear that something had already happened before a specific time in the past.

Use the past perfect to show that something happened before a specific time in the past.

  • By 1997, he had become famous. (we want to show that he had already been famous by that time)


  • He was famous in 1997.
  • He became famous in 1997. (That’s the year when he became famous) &
  • He had become famous by 1997. (He had been famous before 1997)

The past perfect always shows the relationship with another past action.

  • When we got to the cinema the film had already started. (We got there late so we didn’t see the beginning.)
  • The house had already burnt down when the firemen arrived. (They got there late so they couldn’t save the house from fire.)

Use the past perfect for the earlier activity: had already started. Use the past simple for the later event: got to the cinema.

When the time relationship between two past events is clear you can use the simple past for both events: after / before

  • After she appeared in ‘The Colour Purple’ Oprah got the part in another movie. 

Already, yet, ever and never are often used with the past perfect to emphasize the action that happened first.

  • saw that film last night. I think I had never seen it before.
  • took Jason to the cinema last night, but he had already seen the film so he was really bored.

We often use the past perfect with by (a certain time).

By 1997 he had become a really famous actor.

Showing the ‘earlier past’, with: wonder, think, know, realise, understand.

  • wondered who had left​​ the door open.
  • thought had sent the cheque a week before.
  • And then I realised that they had lied to me the day before.
  • knew that I had seen him before.

compare with:

  • wonder who has left the door open.
  • think have already sent the cheque.

Unreal events

  • If I had gone to university I would have studied medicine. (but I hadn’t gone to university and I hadn’t studied medicine)
  • I wish you had told me the truth. (but you hadn’t told me the truth)
  • I’d rather she had asked me before borrowing the car. (but she hadn’t asked)

We use a past perfect, not a simple past, to say how long something had continued up to a past moment. A simple past perfect is used with ‘ non-progressive verbs’ like be, have and know.

  • She told me that her father had been ill since Christmas, (NOT … -that her father was ill since Christmas.)
  • I was sorry to sell my car. I had had it since College, (NOT … I had it since)
  • When they got married, they had known each other for 15 years, (NOT … they-knew eaeh-other for 15 years.)

We can use time conjunctions (e.g. after, as soon as, when, once) to talk about two actions or events that happened one after the other. Usually the past perfect is not necessary in these cases, because we are not ‘going back’ from the time that we are mainly talking about, but simply moving forward from one event to the next.

  • After it got dark, we came back inside.
  • As soon as Jane arrived, we sat down to eat.
  • Once it stopped raining, we started the game again.

However, we can use the past perfect with after, as soon as etc, to emphasise that the first action is separate, independent of the second, completed before the second started.

  • She didn’t feel the same after her dog had died.
  • As soon as he had finished his exams, he went to Paris for a month.

Unrealised hopes and wishes; things that did not happen. The past perfect can be used to express an unrealised hope, wish etc. Had is usually stressed in this case.

  • I had hoped we would leave tomorrow, but it won’t be possible.
  • He had intended to make a cake, but he ran out of time.

Past perfect with it was the first/second timethat

  • It was the first time that I had heard her sing, (not … that I heard …)
  • It was the fifth time she had asked the same question, (not … she asked…)
  • It was only the second opera I had seen in my life, (not … I saw …)

Past perfect is not usedsimply to say that something happened some time ago, or to give a past reason for a present situation.

  • Alex Cary, who worked for my father in the 1980s, is now living in Greece. (NOT Alex Cary, who had worked for my father …)
  • left some photos to be developed. Are they ready yet? (NOT I had left some photos …)