Most people know the three main tenses: past, present, and future. But English is a lot more complicated than that. There are many more tenses and moods, and some of them are harder to understand than others.
Two past tenses that can be difficult to understand are the past perfect and the past continuous tenses. You might also know them by their names pluperfect and past progressive, respectively.
In this blog post, I’ll cover everything you need to know about these two tenses.
The past perfect, or pluperfect, tense is used to talk about events that occurred in the past in relation to other events. An easy explanation for the past perfect is something happened before. It refers to things that occurred before the point in time you are describing.
When we write in the past tense, the simple past tense is the moment in time we are describing. To refer to things that happened before, we use the past perfect tense.
Simple Past: I went to the store yesterday.
Past Perfect: I had gone to the post office before.
Simple Past: I ate.
Past Perfect: I had eaten already.
In the first example, we understand that I went to the post office before the store. This occurred before the event I’m talking about in the simple past. In the second example, the present past implies that some event happened after I ate.
Constructing the Past Perfect
In declarative statements, the formula for writing the past perfect is had + past participle.
The rain had started before I left.
In questions, the structure is had + subject + past participle.
Had the rain started before you left?
What Is the Past Participle?
The past participle is the form of the verb that is used with perfect tenses, whether it’s past or present. Sometimes, the past participle is easy to know. It is often the same as the simple past tense form of the verb.
Other times, the past participle is different. Past participles might end in -ed, -d, -en, -n, or -t. To make things more confusing, sometimes British and American English use different past participles!
Some verbs have a completely different word for the past participle. For example, the simple past tense form of go is went, but the past participle is gone.
If you’re ever unsure what the past participle of a word is, you can find this in any dictionary under the present (standard) form of the verb. To make the past participle negative, put not before the past participle.
Here are some more examples.
- I had heard this before.
- She had not done her homework yet.
- Had you already woken up?
When to Use the Past Perfect
Past perfect is used to clarify timing. When you don’t use the past perfect tense, it can leave your readers unclear as to when events in your story are happening. Take a look at the two examples below.
- We knew he went to Paris.
- We knew he had gone to Paris.
The first example sounds like he went to Paris at that moment or sometime very recently. By using the past perfect, the second example clarifies that he went sometime further in the past.
You can also use the past perfect when talking about conditional events. In this instance, past perfect describes the condition. You use conditional perfect to describe what the outcome would have been.
- If I had gone to sleep earlier last night, I would feel more rested today.
The past continuous tense, also called the past progressive tense, refers to things that were ongoing in the past. It’s used to describe conditions that were repeated and actions that didn’t happen in one instant. It’s also used to explain what was happening when something else happened.
The past continuous is important for setting the scene. It makes the events that occurred clearer.
Constructing the Past Continuous
The present continuous tense is easier to construct than the past perfect because it doesn’t require a past participle. Instead, the structure is was/were + present participle.
The present participle is the -ing form of the verb. All you really need to know is whether to use was or were. If your subject is first-person singular (I) or third-person singular (he, she, it, single noun), you will use was. For second-person singular and all plural subjects, use were.
- I was running fast from the monster.
- You were glowing at your wedding.
- The flowers were blooming.
For questions, the structure is similar to the past perfect tense. The format is was/were + subject + present participle.
- Were you eating dinner?
- Was the dog playing fetch?
When to Use the Past Continuous
When writing in the past tense, past perfect should be used frequently. It’s especially useful for describing a scene. Sensory description often uses the past continuous tense.
- The sun was shining on the day he died.
- The light bulb was buzzing.
The past continuous tense also explains what was happening at a particular moment.
- I was showering when you called.
- At eight o’clock, he was driving to work.
Finally, the past continuous is used to describe repeated or habitual actions. Adverbs of frequency often accompany these situations, and they are sometimes placed between was/were and the past participle.
- My mother was always smiling whenever I came home from school.
- They were working at the plant back then.
Why Use These Tenses?
When choosing to use the past tense in your writing, you need a combination of past tenses. Otherwise, your writing will feel dull and repetitive. It can also be unclear as to when events occurred. Here’s a paragraph that only uses the simple past:
The sun shone brightly. I walked home from work. I walked this route before, but I still enjoyed the view. I ran into my neighbor. He jogged with his dog. I never met his dog.
Now, let’s take a look at the same paragraph using the simple past, the past perfect, and the past continuous.
The sun was shining brightly. I walked home from work. I had walked this route before, but I still enjoyed the view. I ran into my neighbor while he was jogging with his dog. I had never met his dog.
Make your writing clearer and more readable by using the past perfect and past continuous tenses. Once you understand the basic structure and function, these tenses become far less confusing.
Which verb tenses are the most difficult for you to understand? Which ones are the simplest? Let me know by commenting below.