Grammar: using the past perfect – some examples of when you should
Lower intermediate to advanced level (B1-C1)
Many learners are a little confused about when they should use the past perfect in English (had taken, had told, had imagined etc). There are several reasons for this.
One of the main reasons is that it is not used as much as the past or present tenses. Another reason is that sometimes we can choose whether to use it or not. However there are situations where we do need to use the present perfect. Let’s look at an example:
Imagine it is Friday 10th and we want to talk about something you realised on Wednesday 8th about something that happened on Monday 6th. In this situation we have two time periods: the past and an older past. In English, if we want to talk about these things by ‘looking back‘ in time, we often use the past perfect (depending on the precise meaning someone intends). Here are some sentences showing this situation:
He realised (on 8th) he had left his passport in the hotel (on 6th). Luckily the hotel still had it.
She told him (on 8th) she had been away on business (on 6th).
He said (on 8th) he had had a bad cold (on 6th) and so couldn’t come to the party.
Another situation where you often see the past perfect being used is when you want to talk about hopes (that didn’t happen) and regrets:
I had hoped to make a cake for your birthday but unfortunately I didn’t have the time. Sorry.
I wish I had studied harder at school. (I did not study hard enough)
If I had known you were in town, I would have loved to have met you. (I didn’t know and I did not meet them).
We also use it to talk about an imagined (not real) past:
If she had grown up in New York (she didn’t), she would have probably become a doctor.
If I had studied Chinese (I didn’t), it would have been very useful.
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