Past Perfect

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In grammar, the past perfect is an aspect of the verb that designates an action that has been completed before another past action. Formed with the auxiliary had and the past participle of a verb, it's used to indicate a time further back in the past than the present perfect or the simple past tense. The tense is also known as the past perfective, the pluperfect, and the past-in-the-past. The Latin plus quam per fectum means "more than perfect," and the French pronunciation of plus is close to "ploo," which is where the term pluperfect came from.

Past Perfect Examples From Literature

Past perfect tense is everywhere, so just about any literature will have examples. Here are a few.

  • "Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes, and Mary was blind."
    (Laura Ingalls Wilder, "On the Banks of Plum Creek," 1937)

On the Banks of Plum Creek is one of the books in the "Little House on the Prairie" series, which was turned into a long-running TV show. Walnut Grove, Minnesota, a town of fewer than 1,000 people, hosts throngs of people every summer at festivals related to the history and the books. 

  • "He camped that night on the broad Animas Plain and the wind blew in the grass and he slept on the ground wrapped in the serape and in the wool blanket the old man had given him."
    (Cormac McCarthy, "The Crossing," 1994)

Coming-of-age novel "The Crossing," set on the border of the Southwestern United States and Mexico during World War II, is noted for its spare dialogue and laconic characters.

  • "With his new, heightened feelings, he was overwhelmed by sadness at the way the others had laughed and shouted, playing at war."
    (Lois Lowry, "The Giver," 1993)

"The Giver," inspired by the memory loss of author's father, became a movie in 2014 starring Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges.

  • "One great source of pleasure to me was that my wife was delighted with the home I had given her amid the prairies of the far west."
    (William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, "The Life of Hon. William F. Cody," 1889)

Buffalo Bill Cody wrote his autobiography at age 33 and in it recounts his family's move to Kansas when he was a boy and his subsequent life on the frontier as a trapper, buffalo hunter, Army scout, and fighter.

  • "At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice."
    (Maya Angelou, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," 1969)

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou depicts her tumultuous childhood spent between her mother's and grandmother's households, racism, her rape, and her journey to discover her identity and inner strength.  

Functions of the Past Perfect With If Clauses

As in other past tenses, the past perfect in a subordinate clause, called a conditional clause, may signify hypothesis, or something contrary to fact. A past perfect modal, usually would or could have, appears in the main clause. In Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner's "Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar," the authors give these examples:

  • "If you had told me before now, I could have helped. [But I didn't help.]
  • "If you had been coming tomorrow, you would have met my mother. [But you didn't meet my mother.]"

In Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson's "An Introduction to English Grammar," the authors give these examples:

  • "If we had been there yesterday, we would have seen them. (But we were not there yesterday.)
  • "If he had been given a good mark, he would have told me. (But it seems that he was not given a good mark.)"

Using the Tense to Show Completion

You may also use the past perfect to show completion. For example, "She stood outside until he had gone."

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Past Perfect." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, January 29). Past Perfect. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Past Perfect." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).