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June 10, 2012 / dlw43

The Past Perfect – Verb Tense and Aspect Lesson (Part 6 of 13)

Since we’ve completed the Present Tense of the Perfect Aspect, we are now ready to move on to the Past Tense of the Perfect Aspect.

If you have read the Tense and Aspect post, you know that tense and aspect are different.  (If you haven’t read that post and are not aware that tense and aspect are different, go here for a quick introduction.)

We will be examining each aspect in its present, past, and future tense. In other words, we’ll be discussing each box in the Verb Tense and Aspect Chart in separate posts. Download, print out, and follow along on the Verb Tense and Aspect Chart.

The main job of the Perfect Aspect in general, that is the Present, Past, and Future Perfect,  is to order two events in time.  The main job of the Past Perfect in specific, then, is to order two events that happened in the Past.

Though using the Past Perfect aspect in and of itself means that two events are being ordered in time, adverbs are often used to give even more emphasis on this ordering of events. Some of the adverbs that are often used with the Completed Action Before Something in the Past use of Past Perfect include already, just, ever, never before, and never. And, of course, adverbs are required for the use of the Past Perfect that expresses Duration Before Something in the Past (Non-Continuous Verbs).   Since + specific point in time or for + total period of time must be used to construct this use of the Past Perfect.

The Past Perfect has two main uses: completed action before something in the past and duration before something in the past.


Completed Action Before Something in the Past

The blue dot with the orange circle around it should look familiar from the previous post on the Present Perfect. The blue dot with an orange circle around it represents an activity or situation that occurred at an unspecified time. The “X” can be a clause formed with the Past Tense, or it can be a time expression. By using the Past Perfect, we make it abundantly clear which event–always the clause formed with the Past Perfect–happened first. Using the Past Perfect renders the ordering of the sentences irrelevant. This is very useful when we are relating a sequence of events.


We saw the movie in class.  One of the students had read the book. (The student read the book before seeing the movie.)

Cynthia moved to Spain. She applied for jobs there.  (If both sentences are in the Simple Past, the reader will assume that Cynthia first moved to Spain and then applied for jobs.)

Cynthia had moved to Spain.  She applied for jobs there. (Cynthia moved to Spain before applying for jobs there.)

Cynthia moved to Spain.  She had applied for jobs there.  (Cynthia applied for jobs in Spain before she moved there.)

Observe how meaning can change when the Past Perfect is not used:

He liked Los Angeles. He had visited the city many times. (First he visited the city many times. After and because of that, he liked Los Angeles.)

He liked Los Angeles. He visited the city many times. (Using the Simple Past in both sentences means the first sentence happened first and the second sentence happened second. This is called chronological order. In this sentence, he liked Los Angeles before visiting it. Maybe he got a favorable impression of the city from movies or television. The point is that the meaning completely changes if the Past Perfect is not used to express which event happened first.)

Duration Before Something in the Past (Non-Continuous Verbs)

In order to proceed, you must know the difference between continuous, non-continuous, and mixed verbs.  Go here for an explanation of continuous, non-continuous, and mixed verbs.

Like the Present Perfect, the Past Perfect uses non-continuous (stative) verbs, some non-continuous uses of mixed verbs, and certain continuous verbs that express habitual occurrence plus a “since phrase,” “since clause,” or “for phrase” to express the duration of situations.  In the Past Perfect, however, the duration of the situation does not continue to the present moment but up to another activity in the past.


He had had that laptop for ten years before it died. (non-continuous use of the mixed verb “have”)

She had taught ESL in Japan for several years before she applied for a similar job in the United States. (continuous verb “teach” that expresses a situation more than an activity)

Normally the Present Perfect Progressive Aspect, which we will discuss in a later lesson, rather than the Present Perfect Aspect, is used with action verbs to express an activity that began in the past and continues to the present. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule.  Continuous verbs that have the concept of habit embedded within their definition can be used in both the Present Perfect and Present Perfect Progressive to express Duration from the Past until Now.  These verbs include live, work, teach, smoke, wear glasses, play chess, go to school, etc.


The Past Perfect’s two main uses are to express that a completed action has happened before something else in the past, and that a situation of a certain duration occurred in the past before another event in the past occurred.

Next: The Future Perfect


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