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Past Perfect

Contrast earlier from later events

lunch with friends
 

Past Tense vs. Past Perfect

PAST TENSE

Past tense is used to report an event or a series of events in the past. The events are reported in the sequence (order) that they occurred.  Connective adverbs may be used to specify order of occurrence (first, second, third, finally, etc.)                                                                                                        

FIRST EVENT SECOND EVENT

First, Jill stopped at an ATM.

Then, she took her friends out to lunch.

First, Jill took her friends to lunch.

Then, she stopped at an ATM.

First, they sat down.

Then, the waiter tripped and dropped his tray on their table.

First, they stood up to leave.

Then, the waiter tripped and dropped his tray on their table.

PAST PERFECT TENSE

Past perfect is used to emphasize that one past event occurred earlier than another past event. This tense is only used when the contrast in timing is important to our understanding of the relationship of the two events, for example, the effect of the earlier event on the later event.

EARLIER EVENT LATER EVENT

Jill had stopped at an ATM

before she took her friends out to lunch.

 

Jill had taken her friends to lunch

before she stopped at an ATM.

 

They had just sat down

when the waiter tripped and dropped his tray on their table.

 

They had just stood up to leave

when the waiter tripped and dropped his tray on their table.

 

 

sequence (N) – an occurrence of one thing after the other

sequential (Adj) – following, subsequent, consequent

Connective Adverb – a connective adverb expresses a relationship between two clauses, and it transitions the reader or listener from the main idea in one clause to the idea in the next clause. (Also called conjunctive adverbs, linking adverbs, or transition words.)

Past perfect tense marks an earlier time in the past. This difference in timing implies a relationship between the earlier and later activity; that is, how the earlier activity affects the later activity.   See Past Series.

 

 

 

 

Past Perfect

Word Order

 

 
AUXILIARY VERB SUBJECT AUXILIARY  (ADV) PAST PARTICIPLE COMPLEMENT SECOND ACTIVITY
STATEMENT           
 

Jill

had

gone

to the ATM

before she met her friends.

 

The women

had just

gotten up

 

when the waiter dropped his tray.

 

The women

had never

had

such a thing happen

before (then).

QUESTION          

Had 

Jill

 

gone   

to the ATM

before lunch?

Hadn't

Jill

 

thought  

about it?

(before¹)

NEGATIVE          

 

Jill

hadn't

forgotten   

to get some cash

before she met her friends.

 

Jill

had not

seen   

the waiter coming

before he fell.

 

¹ A past perfect clause may occur alone if the second activity is understood from context.

Related pages: Auxiliary Verbs, Past Participle Forms.

 

 

 

 

Before and After

Relate two clauses with connective words

 

 

Relate two clauses with connective prepositions

BEFORE

Before can (optionally) be used in a sentence with past perfect. Note that some speakers find its use repetitive and unnecessary. Before expresses "earlier than" and is placed in front of the clause with the later event—it sets it aside in order to say that the next activity occurred earlier.

EARLIER THAN THIS (2ND EVENT) SHE DID THIS (1ST EVENT)

Before Jill took her friends out to lunch,   

she stopped at an ATM.

she had stopped¹ at an ATM.  

SHE DID THIS (1ST EVENT) EARLIER THAN THIS (2ND EVENT)

Jill stopped at an ATM.

Jill had stopped¹ at an ATM.

before she took her friends out to lunch,   

AFTER

After can (optionally) be used in a sentence with past perfect. After expresses "later than" and is placed in front of the clause with the earlier event—it sets it aside in order to say that the next activity occurred later.  Also see the next section for the use of  afterwards.                 

LATER THAN THIS (1ST EVENT) SHE DID THIS (2ND EVENT)

After Jill stopped at an ATM

After Jill had stopped¹ at an ATM

she took her friends out to lunch.

SHE DID THIS (2ND EVENT) LATER THAN THIS (1ST EVENT)

Jill took her friends out to lunch   

after she stopped at an ATM. 

after she had stopped¹ at an ATM. 

 

Before and after are classified as prepositions that accept either a clause, a gerund or a noun phrase as the complement: Before she took her friends out… [clause]; Before taking her friends out… [gerund clause]; Before her lunchtime… [noun phrase].  See After Before When.

¹Note that some speakers feel the use of before or after with the past perfect is repetitive and unnecessary.  There is no difference in meaning when using past or past perfect in these examples.

 

 

Relate two sentences with connective adverbs

"EARLIER"  ADVERBS

Different timing can also be expressed by placing the a connective adverb directly in front of a second sentence. For some language learners, this method of ordering activities is a much less confusing.

SHE DID THIS EARLIER–SHE DID THIS

Jill had lunch with friends.

Before that,  she stopped at an ATM.

 

Prior to that, she stopped at an ATM.

 

Earlier,  she stopped at an ATM.

 

First,  she stopped at an ATM.

"LATER" ADVERBS

A   connective adverb expresses a relationship (in this case timing) between two sentences.  A comma is placed after this transitional word.                                                                                                           

SHE DID THIS LATER–SHE DID THIS

Jill stopped at an ATM.

Afterward,  she had lunch with friends.

 

After that,  she had lunch with friends.

 

Later, she had lunch with friends.

 

Then, she had lunch with friends.

 

Past perfect optionally can be used with the earlier event.

 

 

Other time-related expressions

EARLIER

Different timing can also be expressed by placing the adverb directly before the second clause (sentence).

SHE DID THIS EARLIER THAN THIS

Jill had stopped at an ATM

before

she ate lunch with friends.   

Jill had just stopped at an ATM

when

(a moment before)

her friends saw her and invited her to join them. 

 

Jill had already stopped at an ATM

by the time¹

(in a window of time before)

her friends saw her and invited her to join them.  

LATER

Different timing can also be expressed by placing the adverb directly before the second clause (sentence).

SHE DID THIS LATER THAN THIS

Jill met her friends for lunch

 

after

she had stopped at the ATM.

Jill met her friends for lunch

 

as soon as

(shortly after)

she had stopped at the ATM.

 

 

 
 

when (1) occurring at the same moment, When I open the door, he closes the window.; (2) occurring immediately after, or in response to, or as an interruption. When I open the door, the wind blows it shut again. (See When–same time vs. later and When/While.)

Related pages  Independent vs. dependent clause  |    After/ Before/ When  |  ¹By the time  

 

 

 

 

 

Past Perfect Progressive

Background Events

 

 

"Backgrounding" with past perfect progressive

SETTING A SCENE

Past progressive relates two past activities with the focus on the activities rather than their timing.  Timing can be expressed by adding connectors indicating sequence: and then, next, etc.

BACKGROUND ACTIVITY FOCUS ACTIVITY
PAST PROGRESSIVE PAST

We were sitting there having lunch,

and suddenly the waiter dropped his tray on the table.

He was talking on his phone.

Then, he crashed into the back of a bus.

She was drinking an icy fruit drink,

and then her head started to ache.

We were sitting there an hour

Then he arrived.

SETTING AN EARLIER SCENE

Past perfect progressive relates the timing of two past activities: one that was ongoing and another interrupting or focal activity. Backgrounding sets the scene for the "main activity".

BACKGROUND ACTIVITY FOCUS ACTIVITY
PAST PERFECT PROG. PAST

We had been sitting there having lunch

when the waiter dropped his tray on the table.

He had been talking on his phone

before he crashed into the back of a bus.

She had been drinking an icy fruit drink

when her head started to ache.

We had been sitting there an hour  

by the time he arrived.

 

Also see By the time.

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

*My grandfather had lived in a small village in Italy when he was a child.

Conflict: the word when indicates same time; however, the verb indicates an earlier time

The bank robber  had took the gun, threw it in the bushes and drove away.

SOLUTION

My grandfather lived in a small village in Italy when he was a child.   

(Use past tense because no time contrast is intended; when= same time)

My grandfather had been living in a small village in Italy when the war started.

(Use past perfect to contrast earlier and later past; when= interruption of new activity)

The bank robber took the gun, threw it in the bushes and drove away.

(Use simple past tense for a series of past actions, and when there is no need to emphasize one action happening earlier than the other.) 

 

When has two meanings:  1) same time, 2) immediately after (interruption of one activity by a second activity)

 

 

 

 

► Show Grammar Notes and Works Cited ▼ Hide Grammar Notes

Grammar Notes (Advanced)

Traditional and Linguistic Description

 

 

Traditional / ESL and Linguistic Descriptions

ESL DESCRIPTION

In traditional grammar, while, when, before, after, and since may be used to introduce a "time-related" clause. These words belong to the conjunction category. The "time-related clause" is called an adverbial clause because it indicates when something happened.

Azar & Hagen call these adverbial clauses or "time clauses" with no mention of a term for the connector.  (Azar 4-3, Adverb clauses 17-2; Reduction  18-1)
 

Swan (2009) refers to while, when, before, after, and since as conjunctions. (Swan 30.1)

LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

In current linguistic analysis while, when, before, after, and since belong to the category preposition, a category which can take a clause, gerund (clause) or noun phrase as its complement. (Contrast that with traditional grammar, in which a preposition can only take an object (noun).)

Huddleston & Pullum (2009) have re-assigned a large number of items previously analyzed as adverbs after, as, as soon as, before, once, since while, and when to the category of prepositions. The preposition is the head of the prepositional phrase (PP) which can be complemented by a noun phrase or a clause. (Huddleston 612-7)

Quirk & Greenbaum (1989) place while, when, before, after, and since in the class of conjunction.  They function as subordinators of adjunct clauses that express a time-relationship.  Also see Biber (8.53)

 

 

Works Cited

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Biber, Douglas, and Stig Johansson, et al. Longman Grammar Of Spoken And Written English. Pearson Education, 1999.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Quirk, Randolph and Sidney Greenbaum. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. 7th ed., Longman Group, 1989.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.

 

 

 

 

Practice

A Late Night Fever

baby
 

Determine which verb form that is needed to complete the sentence.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" to the side or the "check all" button at the bottom.

 

1.

("when" means "at the time that")


2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.
Last night, I was thankful that the baby fell asleep early. 

("when" means "an interruption")


8.

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Contrasting earlier from later past

Cordova
 

 

Read the events of "The Family Picture"

One summer when I was eleven, my family had the money and the time to take our first vacation. My father, my mother, my younger sister and I got into my father's '54 Ford to go to Cordoba, where my parents rented a house up in the hills. Cordoba is a city that is famous for its mountains and rivers, and it is located 900 miles away from Buenos Aires, where we lived. We drove for a long time. Finally, we arrived there.

My father wanted to capture everything in his pictures—the scenery, the family and the car. The problem was that he wanted everything together in one picture. One morning after we ate breakfast, he decided it was the perfect time for a family picture with the car, the house and the scenery—all in one shot. In spite of the fact that squeezing so much into one shot was almost impossible, he decided to try his best. First, he positioned us close to the car, but that did not work because the scenery was not included. Second, he positioned himself down the hill, but that did not work either because the car was not included. Finally, he had the great idea of moving the car to the foreground so that he could fit the family, the car and the scenery into the picture.

Since he didn't have the keys with him, he decided to push the car forward a bit. He gave my mother a big rock to put under the front car wheel to stop the car when it was in the right position. Despite my mother's best effort to put the rock in the right place, it did not work. The wheel rolled over the rock and the whole car kept rolling right down the hill.

My sister's eyes opened wide and my jaw dropped. My mother ran into the house crying. The three of us started walking down the hill to look at the car, which stopped at the bottom of hill. I remember thinking "How are we going to get back home?" However, when we reached the bottom of the hill, we were surprised to see that the car was still intact. The two front wheels were up on two big rocks as if somebody placed them there on purpose. We were so happy! My sister and I ran up the hill to give my mother the good news. My father was staring at the car and saying, "One more thing to tell our grandchildren!"

After Father put away his camera, he said, "I think I'm just going to enjoy this all with my own eyes for the rest of the trip."

capture (V) — keep, save, take

foreground (N) — location that is in the front area of an artistic composition

intact (Adj) — together, not broken

jaw dropped (expression) — an expression of surprise (mouth fell open)

one shot (expression) — the framing or composition of a picture

scenery (N)— the land and trees, the view

 

 

Decide whether to the use the past or past perfect form.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" button.

 

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.