The French Past Perfect (Pluperfect): 'Le Plus-Que-Parfait'

A Past Action That Preceded Another Past Action

Boy eating sandwich
"Il n'avait pas mangé (avant de faire ses devoirs)." He hadn't eaten (before doing his homework). Daniel Grill / Getty Images

The French past perfect, or pluperfect—known in French as le plus-que-parfait—is used to indicate an action in the past that occurred before another action in the past. The latter use can be either mentioned in the same sentence or implied.

'Le Plus-Que-Parfait'

The plus‐que‐parfait is the compound form of the imparfait (imperfect) and is formed by using the imperfect of the appropriate helping verb, avoir or être (have or be) and the participe passé (past participle) of the verb.

Its English equivalent is “had” and the past participle. The table provides some example; for clarity, the prior action is listed in parentheses in some cases.

French Pluperfect

English Translation

Il n'avait pas mangé (avant de faire ses devoirs).

He hadn't eaten (before doing his homework).

J'ai fait du shopping ce matin. J'avais déjà fait la lessive.

I went shopping this morning. I had already done the laundry.

J'étais déjà sorti (quand tu as téléphoné).

I had already left (when you called).

Nous voulions te parler parce que nous ne t'avions pas vu hier.

We wanted to talk to you because we didn't see you yesterday.

Expressing Hypotheticals

The pluperfect is also used in si clauses to express a hypothetical situation in the past contrary to what actually happened. Si clauses or conditionals produce conditional sentences, with one clause stating a condition or possibility and a second clause naming a result produced by that condition.

In English, such sentences are called "if/then" constructions. The French si means "if" in English. There is no equivalent for "then" per se in French conditional sentences.

French Pluperfect With Si Clause

English Translation

Si tu m'avais demandé, j'aurais répondu.

If you had asked me, I would have answered.

Nous y serions allés si nous avions su.

We would have gone if we had known.

Other Plus-Que-Parfait Information

The French past perfect is a compound conjugation, which means it has two parts:

  1. Imperfect of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être)
  2. Past participle of the main verb

Like all French compound conjugations, the past perfect may be subject to grammatical agreement, as follows:

  • When the auxiliary verb is être, the past participle must agree with the subject.
  • When the auxiliary verb is avoir, the past participle may have to agree with its direct object.

French Past Perfect Conjugations

Conjugating the French le plus-que-parfait (the past perfect or pluperfect) requires knowing when to use avoirêtre, or a pronominal, as the table demonstrates for the verbs aimer (to love), devenir (to become), and lavar (to wash).

Aimer (auxiliary verb is avoir) 

j'

avais aimé

tu

avais aimé
il,
elle 
avait aimé

nous

avions aimé

vous

aviez aimé
ils,
elles 
avaient aimé

 

Devenir (être verb) 

j'

étais devenu(e)

tu

étais devenu(e)

il

était devenu

nousétions devenu(e)s
vousétiez devenu(e)(s)

ils

étaient devenus

elle

était devenue

 elles

étaient devenues

 

Se Laver (pronominal verb) 

je

m'étais lavé(e)

tu

t'étais lavé(e)

il

s'était lavé

ils

s'étaient lavés

nous

nous étions lavé(e)s

vous

vous étiez lavé(e)(s)

elle 

s'était lavée

elles

s'étaient lavées

French pronominal verbs are accompanied by the reflexive pronoun se or s' preceding the infinitive, hence the grammatical term "pronominal," which means "relating to a pronoun." All conjugated verbs, with the exception of the imperative form, require a subject pronoun.