Past Perfect: The Tenses in English 7

Published by englistation on August 31, 2020

learning the english tenses

There are four past tenses in English (as there are four of present and of future as well): past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous. Now we are going to talk about the latter two.

past perfect tense

Past Perfect (Simple)

Form

Affirmative                   Question                    Negative

I had lived                         had I lived?                 I hadn’t (had not) lived

 

Usage

The basic meaning and usage of the simple past perfect is an “earlier past”, a past time action that took place earlier (more into the past) than another past time action. That earlier past time action is also “complete” (perfect). So three basic groups of usage can be made:

1.When the speaker (or writer) goes back in time when already talking about past events, for example:

There were some issues to be discussed and we therefore organised a meeting last week. So, we were having this meeting and when she started speaking I realised that I had met her before.

2. When, within one sentence, we want to express that one event took place before the other, for example:

By the time the fire brigade arrived, the house had burnt down.

3. In reported speech when the original utterance was past simple or present perfect, and the main verb (said, told, asked, etc.) is in the past, for example:

‘I was very nervous yesterday,’ she said.        She said she had been very nervous the day before.

‘We’ve found nothing,’ they said.                    They said they had found nothing.

Similarly, when the verb think is the main verb in the past tense, the past perfect is common to talk about things that happened before the “thinking”: I thought I had sent you the email.

 

This tense is also sometimes used to express an unrealised hope or wish when one sees that it is not going to come true, for example:

I had hoped we would be able to leave tomorrow, but it’s beginning to look difficult.

 

Past Perfect Continuous

Form

Affirmative                   Question                    Negative

I had been living              had I been living?       I hadn’t (had not) been living

 

Usage

The past perfect continuous (or progressive) expresses two basic things: 1) action in an “earlier past”, a past time action that took place earlier than another past time event; and 2) this action was longer and not completed when the other past event started. For example:

The kids had been watching TV for 4 hours by the time Jenny got home.

When I found Susan in the basement, I could see that she had been crying for hours.

We use this tense in the same situations as the simple past perfect:

1.When the speaker (or writer) goes back in time when already talking about past events. Remember: the action must be long! For example:

Yes, we had a party last Saturday and I think everyone had a good time – of course, we had been preparing and organising it for weeks.

2. When, within one sentence, we want to express that one event took place before the other and was not completed when the other event started, for example:

When we arrived back from shopping, the dogs had been fighting for a long time.

3. In reported speech when the original utterance was present perfect continuous, and the main verb (said, told, asked, etc.) is in the past, for example:

‘I’ve been living here for ages,’ she said.        She said she had been living there for ages.

Note: In sentences with the past continuous and past simple, the tenses don’t normally change into past perfect and past perfect continuous respectively in the reported speech:
Joe was smoking when the director entered.  —-  He said Joe was smoking when the director entered.

So, as we can see, these tenses are not used simply to say that something happened a really long time ago 🙂