–We use the Past Perfect when there are two actions in the past, with one happening before the other.

Keeping this definition in mind, it’s important to note that it’s very common to use the Past Perfect together with the Past Simple (two actions in one sentence, two different verb tenses). Let’s take a look at a few examples:

~He had told me not to do it, but I did it anyway.

~She had started cooking before her mom arrived.

~I had already bought sugar, eggs and butter when I decided to bake a cake.

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As we can see in the above examples, each sentence includes two actions that occurred in the past, one before the other. In order to make it clear that one action happened before the other action, we use the two different verb tenses: the Past Perfect and the Past Simple.

However, it’s also possible to use the Past Perfect alone in a sentence. In this case, we generally use it in relation to a specific time, day, month or year. Let’s go over some examples in order to see the Past Perfect used in this way:

~I had done my composition by ten o’clock.

~The course had already finished at the end of the month.

~He had sent the email before lunchtime.

Note that this use of the Past Perfect is particularly common in story telling. As stories are almost always told using the Past Simple, it’s possible to indicate an action that happened before ‘the present’ of the story by using the Past Perfect. For example, if the story takes place in 1991 (that story’s ‘present’), and you’re telling it now, then obviously you’ll use the Past Simple. And if you want to mention something that happened before 1991, you can use the Past Perfect. For example:

~“I was living in Los Angeles in 1991. I had already lived in San Francisco before then. But I wanted a change.”

To practice what we’ve gone over here, try the exercise!


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Alex Edstrom
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