How to Use the Past Perfect for Clarity When Telling a Story

Podcast #4 How to Use the Past Perfect for Clarity When Telling a Story

When we’re telling a story about an event that happened in the past, we usually use the simple past tense to tell most of the story.

However, sometimes we forget a detail, or we want to refer back to something that happened before the main event to give extra details.  This is when the past perfect becomes useful.

Most non-native English speakers are confused about how to use the past perfect because it isn’t used as frequently as the simple past tense.

This is because we only use the past perfect for clarity and do not use it more than necessary.

In this podcast, you’ll learn how we use the past perfect to make sure our listener understands the order of events in a story that we’re telling.

Please enjoy the podcast, and let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

Welcome to Episode 4 of the English with Kim podcast!

Today I’m going to talk about how to use the past perfect. Many students are confused by the past perfect because they think that the past perfect should be used for something in the very, very distant past or that it should be used more often than it actually is.

In reality, native speakers use the past perfect for clarity. We use the past perfect to make clear which action happened first and which action happened second. We don’t use the past perfect more than necessary. When students first learn the past perfect, they want to use it all the time, and this is not correct.

Instead, we use the past perfect to make sure our listener understands the order in which events occurred, or the sequence. In general, we use the simple past to talk about events that occurred in the past.  When we’re telling a story, we use the simple past for most of our story.

So why do we decide to use the past perfect? Well, we use the past perfect when we want to refer back to an action that happened before the story that we’re telling. This allows us to add additional details to our story that are necessary to understand the context, or this tells us about previous experiences that happened prior to the telling of the story.

Let’s see how this works in an example.  When I arrived home, she cooked dinner.  This sentence uses two simple past verbs: I arrived home, she cooked dinner.  They follow a normal sequence of events: one, two.

However, I can use the past perfect to change the meaning of this sentence.  I can say, When I arrived home, she had cooked dinner.  By using the past perfect, it becomes very clear that dinner was ready when I got home; it was already on the table, and probably we started to eat as soon as I got home.

I can also use the word already to make it extra clear which action happened first.  When I arrived home, she had already cooked dinner.  This makes it super clear that dinner was ready when I arrived home.

There’s other ways to say this.  I can say, Before I arrived home, she cooked dinner.  By using before, it’s also clear that dinner was ready before I arrived home.  The past perfect is just one of the many tools you can use when speaking in order to make the order of actions very clear.

Other signal words for the past perfect include just and yet.  For example, I can say, When I called him, he hadn’t heard about his new job yet.  It’s also very common to use the past perfect with by the time.  I may say, By the time I turned twenty, I had lived in five different cities.  Using the past perfect here signals to my listener that these actions were completed or finished before I turned twenty.

As you can see, using the past perfect is not actually that difficult.  You just have to be sure to only use it when necessary.

I hope you feel a little more comfortable using the past perfect after listening to this podcast.  If you have any questions, please leave a comment below.  Thank you for listening to the English with Kim podcast.

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