Past Perfect Tense: Examples, Definition, and Rules

Updated January 10, 2023
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Past perfect doesn’t refer to someone who used to be flawless but isn’t anymore. (Talk about a back-handed compliment.) The name for this verb tense comes from the Latin perfectum, meaning “complete,” and it describes actions that are finished. But when do you use past perfect tense — and why isn’t regular past tense good enough?

What Is the Past Perfect Tense?

The past perfect tense is a form of past tense conjugation that shows that the action from a verb has been completed.

Also called the pluperfect, this tense indicates that one action occurred before another action or in a different period of the past.

  • She had met him back in college.
  • The plane had left by the time I got to the airport.
  • I had written the email before he apologized.
  • Kate had wanted to see the movie, but she arrived too late.

Examples of Past Perfect Tense

The following are more examples of past perfect tense in sentences. 

  • We were able to stay at the hotel since we had reserved a room in advance.
  • She had been to the symphony only once before.
  • Marc knew Philadelphia so well because he had lived there for five years.
  • He understood the math test because he had been tutored all week.
  • I did not have any cash because I had lost my purse.
  • I had been to Mexico once before.
  • If I had seen him, I would have told him the news.
  • Before he did his homework, he had stayed after school for help.
  • The cat had chased the bird before it flew out of the yard.
  • We had just called home when my mom texted us about returning the car.
  • She had visited several doctors before she found out what the problem was with her hand.
  • If we had called ahead, we would not have needed to wait so long for a table.

How To Form the Past Perfect Tense

To form the past perfect tense, the formula is simple: Add had (the past tense of the linking verb to have) to the past participle of the main verb. Note that the past participle of irregular verbs is not the same as the verb’s past tense form.


Had + Past Participle

Example Sentence


had prepared

The lawyer won her case because she had prepared for many weeks.


had learned

I had learned the basics of algebra before I started trigonometry.


had known

We had known the truth for quite a while before Carl confessed.


had seen

Kelly had seen her parents a few days ago.


had had

You had had a question before I finished talking.

Using Contractions in Past Perfect Tense

If the above examples feel a little formal to you, that’s probably because you’re used to using the contraction for had in past perfect tense. Just add an apostrophe and “d” to the subject of your sentence instead of had

  • I had met Carlos back in college.
  • I’d met Carlos back in college.
  • You had promised not to be late.
  • You’d promised not to be late.
  • She had lived in California before moving to Texas.
  • She’d lived in California before moving to Texas.

When To Use Past Perfect Tense

It may be tempting to skip the past perfect tense and just use past tense instead. But when the verbs in your sentence occur at different times — or when you want to be more precise about when an action occurs — the past perfect tense comes in handy.

Past Perfect Examples Showing What Happened Before Something Else

Use the past perfect when one action in your sentence happened before another action (which is usually in simple past tense).

  • She stayed up all night because she had received bad news.
  • They won many of the games because they had practiced.
  • Anthony had met Ryan before you introduced him to us at the party.
  • You had studied Italian before you moved to Rome.

Past Perfect Examples Showing What Happened Immediately Before Something Else

When something happens right before another action, use past perfect with the adverb just.

  • She had just left the scene when the ambulance arrived.
  • He had just put the dog on the leash when we got there.
  • The bus had just left when we got to the stop.
  • I had just gone outside when it started to rain.

Past Perfect Examples Showing What Didn’t Happen Before Something Else

You can use past perfect in negative sentences to show that an action didn’t happen before another action. Just add not (or another negative word, such as never) between had and the main verb of the sentence.

  • We had not seen that movie before.
  • Kyle had never been to Mexico.
  • You had not asked me for permission before going out.
  • I had never seen such a beautiful sunset.

Past Perfect Examples Showing What Happened Before a Specific Time

Verbs in the past perfect tense don’t have to happen before another event. They can occur before a specific period in time.

  • She had established her company before 2008.
  • He had never played football until last week.
  • They had gotten engaged before last year.
  • I had fallen asleep before eight o'clock.

Past Perfect Examples Showing Indirect Quotations

Another use of past perfect tense includes indirect quotations, also known as reported speech, when a narrator or another person reports what someone else said.

  • The teacher asked if I had studied for the exam.
  • The usher reminded us that we had paid for different tickets.
  • My neighbor asked if Tim had seen her dog.
  • The boss said that we had done a wonderful job on the presentation.

Past Perfect Examples Showing Subjunctive Mood

Past perfect tense can also show events that didn’t happen when you’re writing in the subjunctive mood (a hypothetical or wishful condition).

  • We wished we had purchased the winning ticket.
  • I wished I had told the truth.
  • She wished she had seen her friend.
  • The boy wished he had asked another question.

It’s All in the Past (Perfect)

The past perfect tense works when an action from the past is finished. But what happens when that action continued for a while before ending? Use the past perfect progressive tense to show when an ongoing action ended before another action to avoid potential verb tense errors in your writing.