Have you ever wondered what the past perfect is? A lot of English learners have trouble using this tense, which is why we have come up with a special guide. Read on to find out more!

A lot of students don’t like using the past perfect. In fact, my students often ask me if they really have to learn all the different tenses in English. Are they necessary? Do we really use them? Well, yes and no. If you want, you can explain yourself in English using just the present simple, past simple and ‘will’ or ‘going to’. It’s possible. And it is also true that we use some tenses more than others. At the same time, if you want to be a really excellent speaker of English, you should understand and be able to use all the forms.

Meaning and usage

So what about the past perfect? How does it work, and how do you know when to use it? We have a very simple idea to try to help you remember:

    Past perfect = before

Hmm, can it be that easy? Well, we always use the past perfect for something that happens before another event in the past. That is the point of it. Usually, when we are telling a story about the past, we use the past simple. For example:

  • I left my wallet at home. I went to the shops. I didn’t have any money.

However, if we start a story and we want to go back in time we use the past perfect:

  • I wanted to pay for the meal but I realised I had left my wallet at home.

In the second sentence, the act of leaving the wallet at home takes place before paying for the meal. The past perfect helps to explain that fact.


The form for the past perfect is actually very similar to the present perfect, except we swap ‘had’ for ‘have/has’. So we then have ‘had + past participle’:

  • I had already paid for my ticket.

For the negative form, we use ‘hadn’t’:

  • Daisy hadn’t already paid for her ticket.

For a question, we use ‘had + subject’:

  • Had you paid for your ticket?
So do I really need the past perfect?

So do you have to use the present perfect? Well, not exactly, you can live without it. Take a look at this sentence:

  • I wanted to speak to Harry at the meeting but he had already left.

This is a typical use of the past perfect – he left before I arrived. So it’s a great time to use it to make your meaning clear. But hang on, what about this?

  • I wanted to speak to Harry at the meeting but he left before I got there.

This is the same meaning, but it uses the past simple and an extra piece of information (‘before I got there’). So actually, you can ‘survive’ without the past perfect, it’s possible! (A sigh of relief from the back of the classroom.) However, if you want to make simple, clear sentences in English (and pass your exams!), we definitely advise you to learn it and use it in the right circumstances. After all, what have you go to to lose? 🙂


If you want to learn more about the past perfect and other grammar topics, check out the Engola World app, available now for Android:


Coming soon for iOS!


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