Past Perfect Usage 1: Action before point in time

Main Principle: Past Perfect has three conditions.

1. Action took place in the past

2. Action was complete (i.e. finished, i.e it’s not continuous)

3. Action took (more precise: had taken) place before a point in time in the past.

Signal words for point in time in Past Perfect:

After, before, by, by the time

Point in time in Past Perfect:

another action (usually in Past Simple)

I had done my lessons before my brother came

After I had done my lessons, my brother came

time on clock

I had done my lessons by 3 pm


I had done my lessons before the exam


I had done my lessons by the 1st of October

contextual time (not explicitly indicated, however, we can understand it from context)

Contextual time: Past Perfect

Contextual time can be anything (another action, time on clock, event, date) that we can infer from the situation (context).

(question) How did you pass the exam? (answer) Because I had done my lessons. (point in time is not explicitly indicated)

Here, contextual time is “before the exam.” It falls into event category. Just to make sure we are using Past Perfect correctly, we can convert this sentence:

I had done my lessons before the exam

As you can see, the above example circles back to the first one.

Simple way to explain Past Perfect

Well, another way to explain it, not that scientific, however, closer to our human nature, is:

When something happened before something. The one happened earlier, is in Past Perfect.

In conclusion

But do we always follow this rule of “action before something in the past”? Can’t we just use Past Simple all over? Well, the world will not crash if we do. However, if we use beautifully constructed sentences, that truly convey what we want to say, isn’t that wonderful? Keep learning, I will discuss all that in my next lessons.

Also, when we have a sequence of actions, to show how a story was unfolding, we don’t have to use the Past Perfect. We only use it to stress the fact that an action was already complete before a point in time.

Back to: Past Perfect Tense, also Pluperfect

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