The past tense of verbs is fairly easy to comprehend. When we talk to our friends, we use past, present, and future tenses with ease, but as writers we use other verb tenses to enhance our work and help explain the sequence of events to our readers.
One of these is the past perfect tense, which is, in essence, a little more past than past. What’s the difference between past tense and past perfect tense?
When used correctly, past perfect tense tells the reader that we’re going back in time, even beyond the usual past tense that is employed in most fiction. Technically speaking, it is used to refer to a noncontinuous action in the past that was already completed by the time another action in the past took place.
Using fantastic verbs is important in creative writing, and the past perfect can be especially useful in fiction writing because you can go back to a previous event without confusing your reader. For that reason, past perfect is often the preferred verb of flashbacks. Here’s an example of past perfect in action in a paragraph:
She had worried about her sister’s drug problem when their mother died and had taken steps to find a suitable rehab program. But her sister continued to push her away over the years, and eventually, Joann decided to step back from the problem and stay available should her sister need her. She knew how stubborn and independent Julie could be.
The past perfect tense can also be annoying if overdone. Once you’ve established that you’re going back in time, you can revert back to the simple past tense. In the above example, we reverted back to the past tense after “rehab program.” The flashback had already been established, and there was no need to continue with the past perfect.
The past tense becomes the past perfect with the addition of the verb “to have.”
Past: I wrote that poem.
Past perfect: I had written that poem.
The past perfect tense implies that I wrote that poem before something else happened, as in “I had written that poem before I experienced a broken heart.” Another example:
Past: I wanted to learn more about Italy, so I called my friend Stephanie, who lived in Florence.
Stephanie was probably still in Florence at the time of the call.
Past perfect: I wanted to learn more about Italy, so I called my friend Stephanie, who had lived in Florence for several years.
Stephanie no longer lives in Florence.
If you’d like to test your verb tense skills, take a crack at our little verb tense quiz.
Thomas Edison invented/had invented the lightbulb.
They never owned/had never owned a dog before Samson padded into their lives.
By the time Mr. Johnson got home, his family ate/had already eaten dinner.
As soon as he spotted the guard, he ran/had run off.
When the music started, the teenagers started/had started to dance.
Andrew couldn’t open the door because he forgot/had forgotten his key.
Bobby has never been/had never been to a baseball game before that night.
If I knew/had known, I would have come by yesterday.
The women fell ill a short while after they ate/had eaten the crab salad.
My son already read/had already read that book before the movie came out.
had never owned
had already eaten
had never been
had already read
The proofreaders at Writer’s Relief could (and do!) talk about verb tenses all day long. If you would like Writer’s Relief to proofread your poems, books, short stories, or essays for verb tense issues (and other things) let us know!