Past Perfect Tense – Definition and Concept

We have already defined the tense of the verb as the time of occurrence or execution of the verb with respect to the time of making the statement. One of the three tenses of the verb is the Past tense, which is further classified into four types.

The Past Perfect tense is that tense of the verb which is used when the verb has finished occurring or is completely executed before the time in which the statement is being made. A few examples below:

  • The union had met
  • She had performed to her potential.
  • I had expected a full house at the multiplex.

In this article, we explore this tense in detail.

At the end of this article, the reader should be able to:

  • Understand the basic idea of Past Perfect Tense
  • Understand Subject-Verb agreement for the Past Perfect Tense
  • Understand the influence of auxiliaries and modals on Subject-Verb agreement
  • Study Past Perfect Tense in the Passive Voice
  • Study the Negative and Interrogative forms of sentences in the Past Perfect Tense

Past Perfect Tense

As we’ve discussed above, the Past Perfect tense is that tense of the verb which is used when the verb has finished occurring or is completely executed before the time of the statement. Let us take a few more examples to understand the idea:

  • The board had concluded that you’re delusional.
  • I had reached the dormitory earlier today.
  • The guests had arrived at the apartment.
  • Had you come here today?

In each of the examples, we note how the verb shows the state of action or being of the noun or pronoun as completely executed before the time of the statement. Thus all of the verbs in these examples are in the Past Perfect Tense.

Subject Verb Agreement (Noun-Verb agreement)

In the Past Perfect Tense, Subject-Verb agreement is where we learn the general form of the verb for different nouns and pronouns. Since we have three persons (first, second and third) and two numbers (singular and plural) we study the different forms of the verb for all the six combinations:

First Person

  • I had come to your place. (First person singular)
  • I had taken the readings now. (First person singular)
  • We had presented our arguments. (First person plural)
  • We had anticipated a big contest here. (First person plural)

In each of the examples above, we see that the Past Perfect tense of verbs usually take the past participle form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural first person pronouns, including the auxiliary.

First Person Singular form:

Pronoun + plural present form of auxiliary (had) + Past Participle form of Verb

Pronoun + modal + root form of auxiliary (have) + Past Participle form of Verb

First Person Plural form:

Pronoun + plural present form of auxiliary (had) + Past Participle form of Verb

Pronoun + modal + root form of auxiliary (have) + Past Participle form of Verb

Second Person

  • You had been a pessimist.
  • You had taken the lead.
  • Had you completed the targets yesterday?

In each of the examples above, we see that the Past Perfect tense of verbs usually take the past participle form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural second person pronouns, along with the plural form of the auxiliary.

Second Person Singular form:

Pronoun + plural present form of auxiliary (had) + Past Participle form of Verb

Pronoun + modal + root form of auxiliary (have) + Past Participle form of Verb

Second Person Plural form:

Pronoun + plural present form of auxiliary (had) + Past Participle form of Verb

Pronoun + modal + root form of auxiliary (have) + Past Participle form of Verb

Third Person

Nouns are generally in the third person, while pronouns can be of all persons. So nouns take the same form of the verb as third person pronouns. Examples include:

  • He had emerged as a spin bowler for the national side. (Third person singular pronoun)
  • It had grown all over the place. (Third person singular pronoun)
  • They had brought the party home tonight. (Third person plural pronoun)
  • The Dalai Lama had resided in India. (Singular noun)
  • These machines had processed 35 bottles per minute. (Plural noun)

In each of the examples above, we see that the present continuous tense of verbs usually take the past participle form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural third person pronouns and nouns, apart from the auxiliary.

Third Person Singular form:

Noun/Pronoun + singular present form of auxiliary (had) + Past Participle form of Verb

Noun/Pronoun + modal + root form of auxiliary (have) + Past Participle form of Verb

Third Person Plural form:

Noun/Pronoun + plural present form of auxiliary (had) + Past Participle form of Verb

Noun/Pronoun + modal + root form of auxiliary (have) + Past Participle form of Verb

Auxiliaries and Modals in Past Perfect Tense

Auxiliaries and modals have the same function in a sentence: assist the verb. While auxiliaries change with the tense of the verb, modals do not.

Auxiliaries

Different forms of the auxiliary have [1] are used with the past participle verb across all forms of nouns and pronouns. We have already understood these forms in the previous section. Let us study these forms in particular now.

  • I had taken the readings now. (First person singular taking plural past form have)
  • We had anticipated a big contest. (First person plural taking plural past form have)
  • You had been a pessimist. (Second person taking plural past form have)
  • It had grown all over the place. (Third person singular taking singular past form has)
  • They had brought the party home tonight. (Third person plural taking plural past form have)
  • The manager had left the company. (Singular noun taking singular past form has)
  • The board members had proposed a merger. (Plural noun taking plural past form have)

Modals [2]

Modals however can be used to enhance the meaning of the verb. Upon using a modal with the verb in the Past Perfect form, the auxiliary verb is reduced to its root form have.

Let us take a few examples:

  • The board had concluded that you’re delusional.
  • I had reached the dormitory earlier today.
  • The guests had arrived at the apartment.

Now, observe the effect of addition of a modal:

  • The board might have concluded that you’re delusional.
  • I could have reached the dormitory by now.
  • The guests may have arrived at the apartment.

Each of these modals effectively reduces the auxiliary to the root form have. Hence we have different rules for Past Perfect tense with the inclusion of modals.

Past Perfect Tense in Passive Voice

A sentence or a verb is in active voice when the subject is the executioner of the verb, while passive voice is when the subject is the recipient of the verb. With a change in voice, all pronouns and nouns take different forms of the verb. We explore that in this section.

From every type of person and number, we pick one example each from the previous sections.

First Person

  • Active: I had taken the readings now. (First person singular)
  • Passive: The readings had been taken (by me)
  • Active: We had anticipated a big contest here. (First person plural)
  • Passive: A big contest had been anticipated (by us)

Second Person

  • Active: Had you completed the targets today?
  • Passive: Had the targets been completed today?

Third Person

  • Active: These machines presently had processed 35 bottles per minute. (Plural noun)
  • Passive: 35 bottles had been processed presently per minute.
  • Active: They had brought the party home tonight. (Third person plural pronoun)
  • Passive: The party had been brought home tonight.

We make the following observations:

  • The primary verb takes the past participle form in the passive voice.
  • The number of the object/predicate (not the subject) influences the auxiliary verb in passive form.
  • The past participle form been is added to the main verb.
  • The past form of the auxiliary verb have is always added to the verb.

Thus the formation of the passive form of a verb in the present continuous tense would be

For all nouns/pronouns:

Noun/Pronoun + Present form of Auxiliary (had) + been + Past Participle form of Verb OR

Noun/Pronoun + modal + Root form of Auxiliary (have) + been + Past Participle form of Verb

Interrogative Sentences in the Past Perfect Tense

Here, we study the rearrangement of words of a sentence with a change in type to interrogative sentences. Let us begin with an example from the previous sections:

  • The union had met
  • She had performed to her potential.
  • I had expected a full house at the multiplex.
  • You had taken the lead.
  • The board might have concluded that you’re delusional.
  • I could have reached the dormitory by now.

The above sentences make a regular statement or what we call assert. Hence these are examples of assertive sentences. Let us now put these into the interrogative form:

  • Had the union met today?
  • Had she performed to her potential?
  • Had I expected a full house at the multiplex?
  • Had you taken the lead?
  • Might the board have concluded that you’re delusional?
  • Could I have reached the dormitory by now?

The Observations:

From the above examples, we make the following inferences:

  • The interrogative form of the sentence begins with the auxiliary verb, if the modal is absent.
  • The interrogative form of the sentence begins with the modal verb, if it is present.

Thus the different interrogative forms of assertive sentences use the following formations:

  • Auxiliary (Past form) + Subject Noun/Pronoun + Past Participle form of the verb (No modal)
  • Modal + Subject Noun/Pronoun + Root form of Auxiliary + Past Participle form of the verb (Modal Present)

Negative Sentences in the Past Perfect Tense

What happens when we change the form of assertive sentences from positive to negative form?

Let us take the examples above again:

  • The union had met
  • She had performed to her potential.
  • I had expected a full house at the multiplex.
  • You had taken the lead.
  • The board might have concluded that you’re delusional.
  • I could have reached the dormitory by now.

When we convert them into the negative form, we get:

  • The union had not met
  • She had not performed to her potential.
  • I had not expected a full house at the multiplex.
  • You had not taken the lead.
  • The board might not have concluded that you’re delusional.
  • I could not have reached the dormitory by now.

The Observations:

From the above examples, we make the following inferences:

  • The negative not occupies its place between the auxiliary and the main verb, if the modal is absent.
  • The negative not occupies its place between the modal and the root form of auxiliary, if the modal is present.

Thus the different interrogative forms of assertive sentences use the following formations:

  • Subject Noun/Pronoun + past form of auxiliary + not + Past Participle form of verb
  • Subject Noun/Pronoun + modal + not + root form of auxiliary + Past Participle form of verb

Conclusion

This concludes the discussion on the Past Perfect Tense.

Notes

[1] The past participle form of the main verb is used along with the different forms of the auxiliary is in the Simple Past tense. We have discussed them in the article on Simple Past Tense. In that case, the resultant sentence is the passive form of a sentence in the simple Present tense. For example:

  • The whole house might just be brought down (by him)

This sentence is a passive form of a sentence in the Simple Past Tense. And for example:

  • They had brought the party home tonight.

This sentence is an active form of a sentence in the Past Perfect Tense.

It is very important to examine all the verbs of the sentence to recognise and express the tense. Reader discretion is advised when the general verb expressions are learnt.

[2] The use of modals on verbs in the Past Tenses creates confusion about the tense of the sentence. Note the examples in the discussion on modals. The addition of a modal reduces the verb from past form to root form and thus the sentence resembles their present tense equivalent.

This means that the sentence takes the Simple Present form (with modal) if initially expressed in Simple Past form (without modal), Present Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Continuous form (without modal), Present Perfect form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect form (without modal), and Present Perfect Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect Continuous form (without modal).

Readers can verify the above statement by comparing the section on modals of the articles on the corresponding forms of Present and Past Tense, especially the examples of sentences after the implementation of modals.

Thus in situations like these, the role of adverbs becomes quite important, as they are the determiner of the tense of these sentences. Sometimes, even after the use of adverbs, the tense of the sentence is left ambiguous. In that case, irrespective of the form of the sentence before the inclusion of modals, we identify these sentences as being in the Present Tense. The subtype of the Present Tense can thereafter be determined by the conventional methods discussed in the articles on Present Tense.