Many English learners think the PAST PERFECT is
challenging. However, it's not so difficult if you
remember that the
past perfect tense happens
before the past tense. It is usually used when you
tell a story that happened in the past.


When you're telling a story, the past tense is usually
the base tense or the tense where the story occurs,
and everything that happens before that is told
using the
past perfect.

As always, we should master its structure. The past perfect is formed with
had + past participle. For example, the past perfect of fly is had flown;
the past perfect of go is
had gone. Mastering the structure of the past perfect
is the first and important step in learning how to use it.

Once you've mastered the structure of this tense, you can start using it when
you're talking about the past. Remember, anything that happened before the
past tense should be told in the
past perfect.


Here are some examples:
1. I
had already eaten when I got to the party. ("Had eaten" happened before
"got".)
2. They wanted to watch the new Will Smith comedy, but their friend
had just
watched it the day before. ("Had watched" happened before "wanted".)
3. He almost had a heart attack when he realized he
had forgotten his
passport at home.
("had forgotten" happened before "had")
4. His family traveled a lot. By the time he was 12, he
had been to most of
Europe and Asia.
("had been" happened before "was")
5. He
had gone to the doctor before he went to the post office. ("had gone"
happened before "went")



CAN WE USE THE PAST TENSE, INSTEAD?

When we use the
past perfect, we make it easy for people to understand our
stories because we're making the order of events clear. Our listeners can
easily tell what happened first and what happened next. Sometimes, however,
you can simply use the past tense instead of the past perfect if it's already
clear which event happened first and which event happened next. We can do
this when the words "before" or "after" are in the sentence.

Sentence number 5 above is an example. Because it has the word "before",
it's already clear that the person went to the doctor first and then he went to
the post office. Because of this we can also say,
"He went to the doctor before
he went to the post office.
"

Similarly, the following two sentences are both correct and mean the same.
1. They went to the museum after they
had eaten lunch.
2. They went to the museum after they ate lunch.


PRACTICING THE PAST PERFECT

Here are a couple of ways to practice the
past perfect tense:
1. Talk about something you did last weekend and say what you had done
before that.
    (We had bought some food before we went to the beach.)
2. Talk about where you went on your last vacation and say something that
you had done before that.
    (We spent a week in London last summer. The year before that, we had
    gone to Paris.)


I hope you found this useful. Practice as much as you can, and good luck!
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Copyright © 2009 – Joseph Yu.