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Is Past Perfect Tense Any Good For The Average English Speaker?

Today I’m going to look at a particular aspect of English Perfect Tenses that is quite often ignored by foreign English speakers. For the most part it’s probably because it’s not used that often in everyday English. Nonetheless, it’s useful to know how and when to use the Past Perfect Tense in English!

So without a further ado, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of this topic. So, as you already know, Perfect Tenses in English are used to tell about events that have already taken place but it’s not really known when exactly they happened, and it’s not really necessary to know that.

An example:
I’ve finished my assignment on time.

As you can see, I don’t mention the exact time when I did finish my assignment, because in this context it’s irrelevant. Just the very fact that I’ve finished it is what I want to tell you about, and that’s what the Perfect Tenses in English are all about.

Now, Past Perfect is a Tense when you replace the have part in the sentence with its past form – had. So what you get is – I had finished my assignment, or its short form – I’d finished my assignment.

The annoying thing about learning English Grammar and the numerous Grammar Tenses is that if you look at them on a page in your grammar book, they might not make much sense. Also, there can be so many examples given with a particular tense that you just can’t make out when exactly you need to use it!

So here’s the most important practical use of the Past Perfect Tense. The most common trigger word is – BEFORE. And the key criterion to apply the Past Perfect Tense is when you want to describe some action that was finished by this ‘before’ moment.

So when you’re telling something about what happened previously and then you want to mention a finished action that had taken place even before that – you have to use the had + Past Participle combination called Past Perfect Tense.

So for example, you arrive at work early and notice that somehow a painting has fallen down. Your colleague comes in five minutes later and you want to explain to him that you didn’t see how it happened. So you’re saying:
It had already happened before I arrived.

You see – in this sentence you’re putting the emphasis on the very fact of the painting falling down and, as it is a complete action which happened before you arrived, it demands Past Perfect Tense – it had fallen down.

Just listen to what it would sound like if you’d use Present Perfect Tense instead – It has already happened before I arrived. You see, it just doesn’t sound right, does it?

And now a couple more examples on occasions when Past Perfect Tense would come handy in your English conversations.

– How could you get ready for the night out so quickly?
– Well, I had planned everything the previous day!

You see, on this occasion I’m putting the emphasis on the very completed action – had planned – and it’s best accomplished by using the Past Perfect Tense.

I could’ve actually said – I planned everything the previous day – and it wouldn’t sound incorrect.
However, if you want to stress the very fact of having planned everything on the previous evening before going out the day after, then Past Perfect is definitely the way to go.

Another example:
To my shock I discovered that the job position had been actually filled before the job interview.

Here you can see all three signs of a sentence that demands the Past Perfect Tense to be used. First of all the action – the job interview – takes place in past. Secondly, there’s something that happened even before the job interview took place. Thirdly, this something is a complete action so – had combined with a Past Participle will explain your point most precisely.

On a finishing note I can tell you that this form isn’t too often used in conversational English. It’s not uncommon to hear the same thing said in the following way:

I was quite shocked to discover that they filled the position before the job interview!

Or

I was quite shocked to discover that the position was filled before the job interview!

You see – you can tell the same thing using simpler grammar forms, and for the most part there’s nothing wrong with it. But the bottom line here is – it’s handy to know why the Past Perfect Tense exists so that you can use it every now and then!

Robby

P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • You’re welcome!

  • meenu

    thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Here’s the only small correction: “…may BE considerED for vetting”.

    Everything else is OK!

  • meenu

    Rate contract with M/S Premeir firm is valid upto 29.5.14 as indicated by the area office so its name may consider for vetting . my sentense is right or wrong ?

  • No problem, you’re welcome!

  • meenu

    thanks you ๐Ÿ™‚
    ya now i got the meaning of these words ..thank you so much for clearing my doubts …:)

  • It all boils down to what those specific words actually mean:

    Should – necessity to do something (I should have read the direction because now I’m lost so it’s obvious that I should have done it)

    Could – realistic probability of something happening (I could have read the direction (it was probable) but I was too busy preparing and in the end I didn’t read it.)

    Would – possibility of something happening depending on conditions (I would have read the direction IF I had the description!)

    Hope it makes sense,

    Robby

  • meenu

    I WOULD HAVE READ the direction before starting..
    i could have read the direction before starting..

    please explain what is the difference among these 3 sentense..

  • meenu

    I SHOULD HAVE READ THE DIRECTION BEFORE STARTING …

  • It’s simply – I finished my work 3 days ago! Remember – when there’s specific time mentioned, go with the Simple Past.

    Speaking of should have, would have and could have – please provide a specific example so that I can see what exactly you’re struggling with.

    Regards,

    Robby

  • meenu

    i have finished my work 3 days ago
    or
    i had finished my work 3 days ago..which sentense is correct ? i am always confused whether i use present perfect or past perfect ?

    i have another problem regarding should have ,would have ,could have use…please explain me …

  • You’re welcome!

  • meenu

    thank you so much…

  • Here’s how I’d say these 2 sentences:

    “I was quite shocked that he could do this to me.”

    “I was trapped in his mind game before I understood his game plan.”

    So in the second instance – yes, you can definitely use “I was trapped”; as far as the first example sentence is concerned, I changed the wording because that’s how native English speakers would say it – “do this TO me” instead of “with me” and then I also swapped “how” for “that” because you can’t really use the word “how” in this instance.

    Hope it all makes sense,

    Regards,

    Robby

  • meenu

    i was quite shocked how could he do this with me..i had trapped in his mind game before i understood his game plan… is these two sentense right ? or can we use i was trapped in his game before i understood his game plan..???

  • Well, as a matter of fact, the examples you just provided do have obvious indicators.

    The very moment you use Simple or Continuous Past in a sentence (I didn’t hear you, was standing etc.) and you intend to describe an action that happened previously, you can go with the Past Perfect.

  • Of course we can say “… they had filled the position…” – I simply pointed out in the article that it’s not uncommon to use different tenses to say the very same thing!

  • Ulas

    Btw,I just saw this while scrolling down : “Sorry, I had just gone out to fetch a paper and I didn’t hear you!”

    This is kinda thing that confuses me most about past pfct. ; how do you know you have to use it while there is no obvious way to tell sth. happened before sth.I just cant understand it! ๐Ÿ™ or this one : John was standing were he’d left him. Can you please explain?? Thanks in advance.

  • Ulas

    Great post Rob,thanks.I had no problems or whatsoever with present perfect but when I started reading Orwell’s 1984 a couple days ago,I started having problems with it because Orwell’s language is really complex and he keeps mixing past perfect,present perfect,past simple and continious aspect of these.So I had been looking for a good guide which explains past perfect,and yours helped me a lot,thanks!

    I also have a question ; ”I was quite shocked to discover that they filled the position before the job interview!” Can’t we use ”they had filled” since the event takes place in the past and they fill the job at an earlier date?

    (I may have made some grammar mistakes and would be grateful if you pointed them out)

  • Thanks!

    And you’re totally right – once you realize that HAD + Perfect form is used when talking about something that was done before a certain moment in the past, the rest is just a walk in the park!

  • Sergio

    Great post! It show us that the present or past perfect tense are not exactly the devil most English learners take them for.

  • Thanks my friend, much appreciated!

  • Anลพe Pompe

    ๐Ÿ™‚ You are most welcome. If it weren’t for you and your videos
    and blogs, I wouldn’t have come up with this idea in the first place ๐Ÿ˜‰
    So thank you, too ๐Ÿ™‚ Great article. I left a comment there as well ๐Ÿ™‚

  • You’re dead right about that, my friend! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Btw – I just published a blog post about English being like LEGO here: http://englishharmony.com/english-is-lego/

    Thanks for inspiration!!!

    Chat soon,

    Robby

  • Anลพe Pompe

    What a great advice! ๐Ÿ™‚ The problem you touched upon in the video was also my problem in the near past. I tried to stuff to many meanings of one word in my head at a time. Now I gave up this approach and it is much better. It is easier to repeat (and you feel better too, since you can actually remember what you have learned, which adds to your confidence) and as you said, down the line, you pick up different meanings one way or the other. You build up your active vocabulary much more naturally that way ๐Ÿ™‚

  • That’s great I’m glad for that and you may also want to check out my latest video which touches upon a similar topic: http://englishharmony.com/learn-one-meaning-of-word/

  • Anลพe Pompe

    Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚ See, I was kinda stuck in no-man’s-land for quite some time and
    everything seemed much more complicated. But now, ‘English sky is blue’ again ๐Ÿ™‚ Your approach really helped to clear it ๐Ÿ™‚

  • That’s amazing, well done and keep up the good work! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Anลพe Pompe

    ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s really effective. Not even a fortnight, and I see some real progress in my English ๐Ÿ™‚

  • That’s great, I’m so glad to see you’ve embraced my principles, that’s the way to go! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Anลพe Pompe

    Hi ๐Ÿ™‚ It does make a lot of sense ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you very much for your advice.

    You see, I caught myself doing just that, over-analyzing, browsing through many sources, trying to figure out when to use it. But it got me nowhere. Along the way I even “collected” a few other issues, so I ended up being even more confused ๐Ÿ™‚ So I will more than gladly take your advise on board.

    What I will do now is memorize this particular phrase and use it whenever the opportunity presents itself. Of course adjusted to the situation/content.

    True that ๐Ÿ™‚ I now have a new LEGO brick and can’t wait to use it ๐Ÿ™‚ You’ve just made my day ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Hi Anลพe,

    Now, first things first – don’t try to approach ANY English word/phrase with the following attitude – “How to know when to use this…”

    It will only make you ANALYZE your English which is going to prevent you from speaking fluently.

    Instead simply start USING the phrase in question whenever a fitting situation arises – in this instance, the phrase is “I was quite shocked to discover” and you can obviously use it whenever telling someone of a shocking discovery you’ve made.

    Basically the point is – don’t try to figure out what this grammar construct is called and when it’s used; simply start using it just like you’d use a new shape LEGO brick! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    And for the record – I don’t even know what it’s called and I don’t even want to know that! I couldn’t care less about grammar terms and terminology simply because I’ve firsthand experience in how grammar interferes with my fluency so I’m much better off simply USING new phrases and sentences without analyzing them from the grammar standpoint.

    Hope it makes sense,

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Anลพe Pompe

    Hi Robby. Can you please tell me how this form is called and how to know when to use it (especially the ‘to infinitive’ part) : “I was quite shocked TO discover…” I would probably say something like- I was quite shocked when I discovered… but this would mean that I have to use Past Perfect. Thank you for your answer in advance ๐Ÿ™‚

  • manu

    i had bad dream so just got up

  • I can be used, it’s just that it’s not used that often.

    In real life conversations tenses are often simplified!

    Let’s take for example, this sentence:

    “I had just gone out to get an evening newspaper.”

    Native speakers wold definitely say it much simpler – “I was just out to get a paper”, or “I just went out to get a paper” or something similar.ร‚ย 

    Basically when you speak, don’t try to bee to hung up on the past perfect, use it when you are actually telling about some event in the past and THEN referring to another event in the more distant past.

    So, if the dialogue went along these lines:

    “Why didn’t you fix the light in the hall as I asked you?”
    “Sorry, I had just gone out to fetch a paper and I didn’t hear you!”

    it actually kind of demands the Past Perfect Tense because you mention TWO actions at the same time – I DIDN’T HEAR YOU and I HAD GONE OUT – and they obviously don’t occur at the same time so that’s why you should use the Past Perfect Tense.

    Other than that, you’re OK to use simpler tenses in daily conversations so that you don’t analyze your speech too much and don’t hamper your fluency!

    Bottom line – yes, you should know when and how to use it, and when you write – yes, do it properly. But when speaking – don’t bee too attentive to detail, because it may come at the cost of your fluency!ร‚ย 

    Regards,

    Robby

  • 1. John was standing were he’d left him (Past Perfect – you see!)
    2. You’ve been to the laboratory this week.
    10. A: I had just gone out to get an evening paper.
    B: But it was raining. Why didn’t you wait till the rain stopped?

  • Nguyenthiha_76

    someone said to me that the past perfect tense can’t be used in a conversation. Is it right? Please tell me more about it. Thanks anyway.

  • Nguyenthiha_76

    Please help me!
    1.there was nobody around.John (stand)where she (leave)him
    2.you(be) to the laboratory this week ( chia tuong lai gan hay hien tai hoan thanh vay thay )
    10 Mr.A:.I ….out to get an evening paperร‚ย 
    ร‚ย  ร‚ย  ร‚ย  M : B But it….Why ….till the rain ….?
    a had just gone/was raining/didn’t you wait/stopped
    b.just went/was raining /didn’t you wait/stopped
    c.was just going/rained/didn’t you wait/stops
    d.has just gone/was raining/didn’t you wait/stopped