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The Past Perfect of English Verbs

Conjugated verbs in English express a combination of grammatical tense, grammatical aspect, grammatical voice, and grammatical mood. Tense is defined as the grammaticalized expression of time and aspect as the grammaticalized expression of temporal structure. Mood is defined as the expression of modality and voice as the expression of relationships between predicate and nominal functions. The past perfect typically refers to verbs in the past tense, perfect aspect, indicative mood, and active voice.

The past perfect can be defined as a verb form that expresses and emphasizes a previous action or state that began in the past and continued up to another point in the past and whose consequences have implications for that second point in time. For example, the sentence The bus had arrived late contains the verb phrase had arrived, which is an example of the past perfect. The use of the past perfect in this example indicates both that the arrival of the bus began in the past and ended at a later point in the past and that the late arrival of the bus had later implications.

Formation of the Past Perfect

As with most verb forms in English, the past perfect is periphrastic, meaning that a “phrase of two or more words that perform a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word.” Verbs in the past perfect are therefore formed by the past tense form of the verb have followed by a past participle, which are either regular or irregular in formation. The verb phrase patterns for the past perfect are as follows:

  • first person singular – had + past participle – I had washed all the linens.
  • second person singular – had + past participle – Had you met the professor before?
  • third person singular – had + past participle – The dog had bitten the cat.
  • first person plural – had + past participle – We had forgotten to pick up the cake.
  • second person plural – had + past participle – Had you flown in from Chicago before?
  • third person plural – had + past participle – Had they shaken the orange juice?

Notice that unlike with the present perfect, the verb phrase pattern for the past perfect is identical in all persons and numbers.

Use of the Past Perfect

The past perfect verb form most often occurs in sentences that express a completed action that occurred before another action in the past or that express actions that began in the past and continued up until other actions in the past. For example:

  • She had just jumped in the shower when the doorbell rang.
  • Had you studied verbs before this class?
  • He had ironed his clothing before getting dressed.
  • Because we had not booked in advance, we were unable to find a hotel room.

The past perfect is a verb form in English that expresses previous actions or states with additional past implications that began in the past and continued up to another specific point in the past. Both native speakers and ESL students must learn to form and use the past perfect forms of English verbs in order to fully and effectively understand and communicate with the English language.

The following visual illustrates the uses of the perfect aspects of English verbs:

Perfect Aspect of English Verbs

The past perfect expresses previous actions or states with other past implications.

References

Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.

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