Home > Grammar, Oral English > The use of the past perfect in English

The use of the past perfect in English

Look at the following sentence:

a) “When I got to the bus stop, the bus already left.”

What’s wrong with this sentence? The answer is that one needs to say “had already left” rather than “already left”. “Had left” is an example of the use of the past perfect. Based on my experience as an ESL teacher, this is a typical mistake in that the simple past tense is used when than the past perfect should be used.
Now let’s look at another type of mistake with the use of the past perfect. What’s wrong with the following sentence?

b) “I had brushed my teeth before I went to bed.”

The answer is that the past perfect (i.e. – had brushed) is used when the simple past tense (i.e. – brushed) should be used. This is an example of the overuse of the past perfect and this type of mistake is also fairly common.
Many learners of English have no problems forming the past perfect. They know how to form the past perfect. One needs to use “had” with the past participle (e.g. – “left”). They know that the past perfect needs to be used if an action in the past occurred before another action in the past. Nevertheless, they have problems using it correctly in their speech and in their writing.
As described above, there are two types of mistakes – undersuppliance of the past perfect (not using the past perfect when it should be used) and oversuppliance of the past perfect (using the past perfect when it shouldn’t be used). In order to be able use the past perfect correctly, one needs a greater understanding of the use of the past perfect.
Let’s examine the correct use of sentence ‘a’ in sentence ‘c’:

c) “When I got to the bus stop, the bus had already left.”

Why is the past perfect necessary in the above sentence? There are three primary reasons:
1. Both actions happened in the past. The bus left before I got to the bus stop.
2. The action expressed by the past perfect has some kind of effect on or relevance for the past. In this case, the effect is that I missed the bus.
3. The order of mention of the two past actions is the opposite of the actual order of events in reality. Namely, the bus left first in reality, but it is mentioned last in the sentence.

Let’s apply the above principle with a couple of example sentences. Look at the
sentences below and edit them for overuse or underuse of the past perfect when appropriate. A sentence may also be correct.

d) By the time we got to the party, the guests had already left.
ANSWER: The sentence is correct. First, both actions happened in the past. The guests left before we got to the party. Second, the action expressed by the past perfect has an effect on the past. Namely, the party was over by the time we got there. So, we went to the party for nothing. Finally, the past perfect action is mentioned last. Thus, the order of mention is the opposite of the order of events in reality. In reality, the action expressed by the past perfect actually occurred first.

e) I had watched TV before I went swimming.

ANSWER: The past perfect is used incorrectly above. The sentence should actually read as follows: “I watched TV before I went swimming.” There are not enough reasons to use the past perfect. Yes, both actions happened in the past and yes, I watched TV before I went swimming. However, it’s not normal in this case to emphasize this order of events through the use of the past perfect. The order of mention is the same order as the order of occurrence of events in reality. I watched TV first (in reality) and I mentioned this first as well. Moreover, the action described by the use of the past perfect has no apparent relevance on the past or effect on the past (unlike in sentence ‘d’ above).

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Categories: Grammar, Oral English
  1. Anonymous
    July 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    helpful for me as a forever English learner.

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