Back to the past


IN recent encounters with professionals at universities and corporations, I’ve noticed a problem with the past perfect tense.

Remember that the use of this tense in English is where there is a relationship between two events. For example:

After he had written the report, he made a vital phone call.

So the phone call happens in the past, and before the phone call, he wrote a report.

It is a common error to use the past perfect as a tense for a single event that occurred a long time ago, e.g.

I had graduated from the University of Hull. (The wrong assumption here is that since it was many years ago, the past perfect should be used.)

This is most common for speakers whose first language has a specific tense for the distant past.

The form of the past perfect is as follows:

had + past participle

she had eaten

we had read

they had completed

I had been

I had got

You can see from the above examples that the forms of the past participle are varied. To be honest, rather than work out the rules, I think it is best to learn them in their groups. We were drilled them at school from an early age (“drink, drank, drunk”, “sing, sang, sung”). These represent the base form, past simple and past participle.

Most good grammar books and dictionaries will list the irregular forms. You should note that in the examples listed above, Americans would use “I had gotten” instead of “I had got”.

In terms of pronunciation, it is common to shorten the had to ’d. So “she’d eaten”, “we’d read” and “they’d completed”. This means that it has the same pronunciation as “I would” (I’d) which can cause confusion.

Let’s take a look at some of the usages of this tense:

By four o’clock they had made their decision and the election began for a new CEO.

(The process of making the decision occurred before the election could begin.)

When he arrived, the presentation had started.

(Commonly used with when and both events occurring in the past with the presentation occurring earlier.)

It was Wednesday before I’d read the report.

(It is now Thursday. The feeling is that I expected to finish it before Wednesday but didn’t.)

After I’d taken the job, I discovered the local tax rates.

(It was too late. I had started the job.)

I had hoped you would finish earlier.

(Only used in spoken language. Stress is on “had”, so no short form (’d). It expresses disappointment or disapproval.)

He told me he had just completed the report.

(In reported speech, if the original spoken words are present perfect, then the tense “moves back” to past perfect. In this case, the original words in direct speech are “I’ve just completed the report.”)