Sergey Sulimov


Sergey Sulimov


Past Perfect: usage rules

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Past Perfect is regularly encountered in English in everyday communication, but it causes difficulties with the use of it for many students. Today we’ll look at when it should be used, how it’s formed, and how it differs from Past Simple and Present Perfect.  

What is Past Perfect

The past perfect tense comes in handy when you need to talk about an action in the past that happened before another action or ended before a certain point in the past. This moment in the past can either be understood from the context or have a precise marker.

He had completed the essay by 11 pm. — Он дописал сочинение к 11 вечера (точное время в прошлом).

I had bought a car before I moved to another city. — Я купил машину, до того как переехал в другой город (одной действие в прошлом совершилось раньше другого в прошлом).

When Past Perfect is Used

  • When describing two actions in the past with the obligatory emphasis on the fact that them one occurred before the other.

Past Simple is most often used to refer to one of the past actions, while the other requires the past perfect tense.

He had worked hard before reached his current high position. — Он много работал, до того как добился нынешнего высокого положения.

  • When one action in the past becomes another action cause in the past, Past Perfect also comes in handy.

He was very thirsty. They had stayed in the forest without water for almost a day. — Он очень хотел пить. Они пробыли в лесу без воды почти сутки (второе предложение объясняет первое).

  • Past Perfect is used with state verbs when you are talking about that action duration.

For example, with the verbs to have, to be, to know, and others that cannot be used in the Continuous form. An additional marker in such sentences is the words since or for.

She told me that she had not seen him for three weeks. — Она сказала мне, что не видела его уже три недели.

  • In conditional sentences, or if-clauses, the part where the condition is indicated uses the past perfect tense.

This is the conditional sentence third type, when you express regret that you could have done something in the past, but it didn’t happen, and now you can’t change the situation anymore.

If I had known that you need money, I would definitely have given it. — Если бы я знал, что тебе нужны деньги, то обязательно бы дал их.

  • In the construction with I wish to express regret.

Note that the combination I wish + Past Perfect in Russian is translated as negative.

I wish they had come to us last summer. — Жаль, что они не смогли приехать к нам прошлым летом (Я бы хотел, чтобы они приехали к нам прошлым летом).

How Past Perfect is formed

To form the Past Perfect, you need an auxiliary verb had (past form of the verb to have) and the sense verb a third form. The formula for this tense is as follows:

Подлежащее + had + Past Participle (3 форма смыслового глагола V3/-ed).

I arrived at the station on time, but the train had already left. — Я приехал на вокзал вовремя, но поезд уже ушел.

If the sense verb is correct, it is sufficient to add the ending -ed to the base: play — played, dry — dried, ask — asked.

The rules for adding an ending are the same as for Past Simple, for example.

If the verb is irregular, look for its third form in the table or learn it by heart. The second option will save you time: freeze (замерзать) — froze — frozen, keep (хранить) — kept — kept.

Question, affirmation, denial

Use the above formula to construct an affirmative sentence. In addition, marker words may indicate the necessity of using this particular tense: already — уже, after — после, before — до, by — к, earlier — ранее, first — сперва, hardly … when / no sooner … than — как только, едва, just — только что, when — когда, yet — уже, еще не.

She knew how to answer this question because she had read the text about it before. — Она знала, как ответить на это вопрос, потому что прочитала текст об этом раньше.

I had already left the house when the phone rang. — Я уже вышла из дома, когда зазвонил телефон.

Hardly had the train pulled up to the platform, when it started to rain. — Едва поезд подъехал к перрону, как начался ливень. 

To ask a general question in Past Perfect, you need to put the auxiliary verb first:

Had + подлежащее + V3/Ved?

Had they come home by five o’clock? — Они пришли домой к пяти часам?

When creating a special question with a question word, the question word comes first before the auxiliary verb.

How many pills had he taken before you found him? — Сколько таблеток он успел выпить до того как ты его нашел?

To make a sentence in Past Perfect negative, you must use the particle not after the auxiliary verb:

Подлежащее + had not / hadn’t + V3/Ved.

I had not finished breakfast when he arrived. — Я не закончил завтракать, когда он пришел.

Past Perfect or Past Simple

There can be confusion in the simple past and the past perfect use. However, they have clear boundaries that will allow you to choose the correct tense.

When you are talking about simple past actions, remember that the Past Perfect only appears when there is another past action.

I worked at a factory. — Я работал на заводе.

I had worked in a factory before I decided to become a programmer. — Я работал на заводе, прежде чем я решил стать программистом.

For Past Simple, chronology is important (the action took place one after the other), a simple enumeration, while for Past Perfect, the one action to another precedence is important.

She put sliced potatoes in a saucepan, added salt, stirred and tasted. — Она положила в кастрюлю нарезанный картофель, добавила соль, помешала и попробовала.

She put sliced potatoes in a saucepan, stirred and tasted, but before she had added salt. — Она положила в кастрюлю нарезанный картофель, помешала и попробовала, но до этого добавила соль.

Past Perfect or Present Perfect

The past and present perfect tenses are similar in essence, the main difference being that the former is used to describe past actions, the latter is used to describe present or closely related to the present.

They’re not home. They have left for the forest. — Их нет дома. Они уехали в лес.

They were not at home yesterday morning. They had left for the forest. — Их не было дома вчера утром. Они уехали в лес.

Important: The action in Present Perfect has ended by some point in the present, and the action in Past Perfect has ended by some point in the past.

I haven’t finished washing the dishes yet. Wait for me a little, please. — Я еще не закончила мыть посуду. Подожди меня немного, пожалуйста.

He came too early yesterday, and I hadn’t finished washing the dishes yet, so he had to wait a bit for me. — Он пришел вчера слишком рано, и я еще не закончила мыть посуду, и ему пришлось подождать меня немного.

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