Past Perfect

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Past perfect
The structure of the past perfect in English.

In grammar, the past perfect is an aspect of the verb that designates an action which has been completed before another past action. Also known as the past perfective, the pluperfect, and the past-in-the-past.

Formed with the auxiliary had and the past participle of a verb, the past perfect indicates a time further back in the past than the present perfect or the simple past tense.

Examples and Observations

  • When I phoned Julie a week after the competition, she described how she had won first place and had received a trophy.  
  • "He had never received so much attention before, and now a fever of expectancy took possession of him."
    (Sherwood Anderson, "The Other Woman," 1921)
  • "Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes, and Mary was blind."
    (Laura I. Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek, 1937)
  • "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, Knopf, 1994)
  • "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)
  • "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)
  • "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)
  • "The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."
    (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942)

Functions of the Past Perfect

"In general, past perfect tenses refer to time earlier than some other past time.

But like other so-called past tenses, the past perfect in a subordinate clause may signify hypothesis (something contrary to fact):

If you had told me before now, I could have helped.
If you had been coming tomorrow, you would have met my mother.

The past perfect may also stress perfectiveness or completion:

They waited until I had finished."

(Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1994)

Using the Past Perfect in Conditional Clauses

"If the situations are set in the past, the past perfect is used in the conditional clause and a past perfect modal, usually would have, in the main clause:

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.)"

(Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson, An Introduction to English Grammar, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2002)


"Only in grammar can you be more than perfect. . . . The Latin plus quam per fectum means "more than perfect," and the French pronunciation of plus is close to "ploo"; that gave us pluperfect--not merely completed at some vague time in the past, maybe just now, but completed at or before a certain time.

For another biblical example, Luke writes of the prodigal son: 'And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine.' The little auxiliary word had does the perfecting trick, locating the action just after the spending of all.

"Perfect refines the past tense, which is why some grammarians like to call the pluperfect the past perfect."
(William Safire, "Tense Encounter." The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1992)