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Steps to Success » Tenses

Past Perfect Tense

‘Why is this room so messy?’ asked Mum as she glared at Matthew. His room looked like a hurricane had swept through it. ‘I told you to make sure it was clean before I came back, didn’t I?’

‘I cleaned it, but-’ Matthew explained.

‘You call this a clean room?’

‘I cleaned it, I did!’ Matthew’s eyes watered.

‘First you disobey me, and now you lie to me. You’re in big trouble.’ Mum shook her head, and Matthew could see their planned trip to Disneyland disappearing like smoke.

‘I really did clean it, Mum. But Lucky raced around the room with a roll of tissue afterwards, and he did all this!’ Matthew glared at the dog, which still had a scrap of white hanging from its mouth.

‘Now I see.’ Matthew’s mother hugged him. ‘Thank you for explaining. But you should have said, “Before Lucky made all this mess, I had cleaned the room perfectly.” Then, I would have understood straight away.’ 


Looking at the conversation above, do you know why Mum corrected Matthew? This is because he didn’t use the past perfect tense to make things clear. When we are talking about two actions which happened in the past, we use past perfect tense to identify the earlier of the two events and make the sequence clear.

Many of my students struggle with the differentiation between simple past tense and past perfect tense. Past perfect tense is not used to say that something happened in the past. This can be done using simple past tense.

I had folded the clothes. (Incorrect)

I folded the clothes. (Correct)

We use the past perfect tense when we want to show the sequence of events. For example, the first sentence here (a) shows that I did one action (folded the clothes) before another action happened (Jamez came home). The second sentence (b) doesn’t use past perfect tense and it suggests that I folded the clothes because Jamez was coming home.

  1. I had folded the clothes before Jamez came home.
  2. I folded the clothes before Jamez came home.


Here are two main ways we use past perfect tense:

We can use past perfect tense to show the earlier action out of two past actions in the same sentence.

Have a look at these sentences:

Dad prepared breakfast at 9:30 this morning.

Johnny woke up at 10:00 this morning.

Both actions happened in the past, so we use the past simple tense. However, if we want to combine the sentences clearly, we need to use the past perfect tense.

Dad had prepared breakfast before Johnny woke up.

We use the past perfect to show that one action (had prepared breakfast) happened before another action in the past (Johnny woke up).

Past perfect tense can also be used to show that something happened before a specific time in the past.

She had established her company before 2008.

He had never played football until last week.


Now, you understand why Mum corrected Matthew in the conversation at the beginning of this article, right? If you want more practice on simple past tense and past perfect tense, check out our I Love Grammar series!