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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.
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.
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!
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!
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P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!