Past Perfect – Meaning and Use

past_perfect GraphicThis post will show you how to use the Past Perfect. To see how to form the Past Perfect, click here.

The Past Perfect expresses the relationship in time between two past events. It shows that one action or state happened before another action or state in the past. The Past Perfect expresses the first event and the Past Simple often expresses the second, or later, event.

  • I had just completed the exam. (Past perfect, 1st event)
  • I felt so relieved. (Past Simple, 2nd event)


The past time can be recent or distant.

  • Michael called me this morning, but I wasn’t there; I had already left.  (Recent time)
  • Michael wrote me last year, but I never got the letter; I had moved away.


The Past Perfect is often used in sentences containing past time clauses. The Past Perfect is used to indicate the first event, and the Past Simple is used for the second event. Before, by the time, when, until, and after introduce the time clause.

Past Perfect (1st Event)                                    Past Simple (2nd Event)

The thief had escaped                                    before I called the police.

We had calmed down                                    by the time the police came.

He had been upstairs                                    when we came home.

We hadn’t noticed                                                until we heard the footsteps.

After I had called the police,                         we realized the thief was gone.


In sentences with before, after, by the time, and until, the Past Perfect is sometimes replaced by the Past Simple with no difference in meaning.

  • I had gone inside before I took off my coat. = I went inside before I took off my coat.
  • After I had gone inside, I took off my coat. = After I went inside, I took off my coat.


The Past Perfect is often used with the same adverbs and prepositions as the Present Perfect: already, yet, still, ever, never, for, since, and just.

  •  By  lunch time, we had  already discussed the new budget and written a new report.
  • I had lived in Texas for 12 years before I moved to California.
  • Had she ever eaten a hot dog before she came to the United States? No, she’d never had one!!


By + a time can be used with the Past Perfect to express the later time in the sentence.

  • We had finished by then.
  • By noon, we had hiked two miles.

3 thoughts on “Past Perfect – Meaning and Use

  1. Pingback: Past Perfect – Verb Form | Present Simple ESL

  2. Pingback: All Twelve English Verb Tenses | Present Simple ESL

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