I HAD LEARNED… The Past Perfect Tense | English Grammar Lesson with Pronunciation & Examples

Lesson Overview

Lesson Summary 

Can you accurately tell stories in English? The Past Perfect Tense will help you do it! In this English Grammar Lesson, I’ll go over the correct usage, pronunciation & examples. As usual, there’s a QUIZ & CHALLENGE for you at the end!

Video Transcript

Hey there I’m Emma from mmmEnglish! Today we’re gonna focus on the language that you need to tell stories in English.

Now we all tell stories right about our day, about our childhood or maybe just to laugh at something that happened earlier. So a really useful tense to help you accurately tell stories in English is the past perfect.

Now I know that grammar isn’t usually heaps of fun but we’re going to include some pronunciation practice and I will make it as fun as I can. As always I’ve got a mini quiz at the end to help you practise so make sure you stick around.

When to use past perfect

So we use the past perfect to talk about the past but not just any situation in the past, we use the past perfect when we’re talking about two events that happened in the past and when one event happened before the other event.

So it helps you to order the actions in your story. Think about the past perfect as helping us to create a timeline.

  • I had just stepped outside when it started to rain.

So there are two actions here, right? I stepped outside, it started to rain.

Now if I use just the past simple for both of these events well then we don’t know which one happened first, right? All we know is that both events happened in the past. So by using the past perfect in one of those actions, I’m letting you know which action happened before the other.

  • I had just stepped outside when it started to rain.

So which one came first? I stepped outside and then after it started to rain.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

  • She had just finished her exam when the timer went off.

So which action happened first? Did the timer go up first? No, she finished her exam first but only by a little, just. And we know this because of the past perfect.

  • I couldn’t go out for dinner because I had left my wallet at home.

So try and imagine the story here, you know, I was working and one of my colleagues came up to ask me to join them for dinner after work but I realised that I didn’t have my wallet that day. I left it at home. So I couldn’t go out.

  • He had mentioned feeling sick, but then they were surprised when he suddenly fainted.

Now that is a great sentence. It’s very dramatic. He did say that he felt sick and he mentioned it before he fainted but clearly, no one was paying attention because it was a shock that he fainted.

So the past perfect helps our story to unfold over time, to create suspense and to create drama.

How to make a past perfect sentence

So let’s talk about how we make a past perfect sentence and it’s pretty simple actually as far as English verb tenses go especially after all of the conditionals videos that I’ve been teaching lately.

You’ve probably already started noticing a pattern. We create the past perfect by using the verb ‘had’, the auxiliary verb ‘had’, followed by our main verb in past participle form.

So let’s go back and look at those same examples again.

  • She had just finished her exam when the timer went off.
  • I couldn’t go out for dinner because I had left my wallet at home.
  • He had mentioned feeling sick but then they were surprised when he suddenly fainted.

Pronunciation of contractions

So I’m going to interrupt our lesson here before we go too much further because I want to talk about pronunciation.

Learning to correctly use contractions is going to help you to sound much more natural and much more relaxed as you speak. ‘had’ is our auxiliary verb here right and our main verb comes after in the past participle form.

So auxiliary verbs are grammatical words. They’re usually unstressed and this impacts the way that they are spoken. Auxiliary verbs are usually connected to the subject in spoken English so it’s really natural to hear:

I’d instead of I had
you’d (you had)
she’d (she had)
he’d (he had)
we’d (we had)
they’d (we had)
and the trickiest one of all, it’d (it had)

  • It’d been raining all day.

Now in negative sentences, the auxiliary verb usually contracts with ‘not’ so you’ll hear I hadn’t instead of I had not. Or you hadn’t instead of you had not.

Now remember, we don’t conjugate the auxiliary verb when were using the past perfect right so we use ‘had’ with ‘she’.

She hadn’t.
It hadn’t.
They hadn’t.

But you will occasionally hear the contraction a little differently.

  • She’d not been there.
  • You’d not tasted it.

And this is absolutely no problem but it’s much less common. It’s used less frequently.

My students often feel really frustrated about these contractions because they’re exactly the same contractions as we use for ‘I would’, I’d. It’s annoying I know but the clue is in the main verb that follows because with ‘would’, it’s always followed by the infinitive verb right? ‘had’ is always followed by the past participle.

So if you hear ‘I go to the beach every day after school’ we know that that’s ‘would’ because the verb ‘go’ is an infinitive form.

  • I’d been at the beach when the storm rolled in.

We know that that’s the past perfect because of the verb form that follows.

So as we move through this lesson, tune into the way that I’m saying all the examples and the practice sentences. Try to practise out loud with me and just get comfortable with it.

How the past perfect is used

Alright now let’s get back to how the past perfect tense is used because it almost always involves more than one event or action. So we usually need to know what to do with the other event in our sentence, right?

So when we use the past perfect in a sentence to show the order of things that happen in the past, the first event happens in the past perfect tense. The second event happens in the past simple tense.

Now interestingly it doesn’t matter which order the events are in the sentence. It’s the tenses that tell us what happened first so we could say the past perfect, past simple or the past simple and the past perfect. It’s the same. In either of those examples, the past perfect event is the one that happened first in time.

  • I had just smelled smoke when the fire alarm went off.
  • When the fire alarm went off, I had just smelled smoke.

So in both examples, I smelled the smoke first. It happened just before the alarm went off.

I also want to make a special point about adverbs here because we use adverbs like just and really, already. They’re often used in the past perfect tense and they go between ‘had’ and our main verb right so we have ‘had’, adverb, past participle.

… had just finished.
… had really tried.
… had already eaten.

All of this is exciting huh? It helps us to add more to our story.

So we use ‘just’ with the past perfect when one event happens immediately before the other so you really want to emphasise that not much time has passed between the first event and the second event.

  • He had just got in the shower when he heard a knock at the door.

So it was only moments before. We use ‘already’ with the past perfect when an event happens early or earlier than expected.

  • I ran to the supermarket as fast as I could but it had already closed when I got there.

Do you want to know one of the most common mistakes that my students make with this tense? Can you see what’s wrong there?

It’s the present perfect and you can’t use ‘when’ with the past simple and the present perfect. We have to use the past perfect ‘had’ with the past participle even when the subject is plural, we still use ‘had’ okay so don’t conjugate the verb. That is a massive mistake when you’re talking about the past perfect.

So we’ve gone through all the details about how to make the past perfect, what you need to remember, what you need to do. Let’s practise using it together. I’m really looking forward to hearing some stories from you guys.

Quiz time! To kick off our quiz, I’m gonna give you two events or actions up here.

Both of these events take place in the past. So I’ll tell you which event happened first and you’ll need to write a sentence correctly using the past perfect. So the first event was we heard a strange noise and the second event was the lights went out immediately after.

Now that part about immediately after is important because you can use an adverb to help explain that. So you might write something like:

  • We had just heard a strange noise when the lights went out.

Practice Quiz

Now it’s your turn to try. So I want you to write your answers in the comments down below this video so that I can come down and check them for you, correct them if you need it.

Event 1: I decided to leave.
Event 2: The boss called for a meeting.

Event 2: We bought plane tickets.
Event 1: The prices increased (unexpectedly early)

Event 1: She looked around for help.
Event 2: A salesperson appeared (immediately afterwards)


Awesome work! I have got one extra challenge for you if you really want to test your skills, see how well you can do. I want you to write a short story for me about a misadventure that you’ve had once in the past.

So I want you to try and use three examples of the past perfect. And just so you know a misadventure is an adventure or a story but something went a little wrong. Something went not quite right.

Perhaps it’s quite a funny story where you were running late, you missed your bus and you got rained on. Or maybe it was a frustrating story about losing your keys, getting locked out and then missing an important meeting.

I’m really excited to read these stories guys and I’m gonna do my best to give you feedback, especially if you get your stories written in the next couple of days, as soon as this video is released on my channel.

Thank you for sticking with me through this lesson. I hope that it was useful and a little bit of fun. Make sure you subscribe to my channel and share this lesson with anyone who you know needs to practise their grammar a little.

As always you can join me right here for our next lesson. See you in there!

Links mentioned in the video

Related videos

  • How to use English Modal Verbs | Possibility & Probability
    How to use English Modal Verbs | Possibility & Probability

  • Common Mistakes with English ADJECTIVES 👉🏼 -ed and -ing endings
    Common Mistakes with English ADJECTIVES 👉🏼 -ed and -ing endings

  • The Most Common Mistakes in English | Don’t Make These Speaking Mistakes!
    The Most Common Mistakes in English | Don’t Make These Speaking Mistakes!