If you speak English, you most likely make use of the English past tense every day. And chances are, if you're not an English scholar or planning on teaching English, you don't know how to explain how each of the four tenses making up the past tense system are formed and used (or even that there are four variations!). For the average person; there is one past tense and that's all there is to know. If you want to know more (or plan on teaching English) then knowledge of each of the four minor tenses that make up the past tense is required. The four past tenses are: past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.

This simple guide will tell you everything you need to know about the third of the past tenses, the past perfect tense.

When is the past perfect tense used?

The past perfect tense is used for:

- Referring to past actions seen from the viewpoint of more recent past actions e.g.

I had to buy a new ticket, the other one had expired; They went home early, the concert had ended earlier than expected

- Referring to a past action that came to an end, with a new action being performed afterwards (usually as a result of the completed action) e.g.

After he had lifted the boom, I drove through; When I had left the building, I knew I was forgetting something

How is the past perfect tense formed?

Tenses have three variations: Affirmative, Negative and Question

Note: The auxiliary verb "have" has only one past forms: had. The past participle is often created by adding "d" or "ed" to the base form of a verb. There are however many irregular verbs that do not have rules for their past participle formation – these have to be learned through experience. A list of irregular verbs can be found in most good English dictionaries.

-Affirmative: Subject + auxiliary verb "have"+ past participle

I had eaten an hour earlier; They had run the entire distance; It had approached from the front

-Negative: Subject + auxiliary verb "have" + not + past participle

I had not eaten an hour earlier; They had not run the entire distance; It had not approached from the front

- Question: Auxiliary verb "have" + subject + past participle

Had I eaten an hour earlier?; Had they run the entire distance?; Had it approached from the front?

Keep it simple

It may seem that there is no simple way of learning the English tense system, but by taking one minor tense at a time and practicing its formation and different uses, one will find that the tense system can be learnt fairly quickly. Knowledge of parts of speech and the rules to form each tense is important in the beginning, and once these are fully remembered, practice will see the entire system becoming much easier to understand and use naturally and correctly.