Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Do you know when to use the past perfect tense in English?

Do you easily get confused?

Today we’ll show you exactly how and when natives use it so that you can connect more easily and sound more natural in English.

This tense is definitely used much less than the present or present perfect or the simple past.

Today we start with a question from a listener:

In conversational English, do you use the past perfect tense or does it sound too formal so you usually try to avoid it? For example, would you use sentences like”I had met her before you introduce us,” “You said you had bought a new ca,” “if I had studied harder for the exam, I’d have passed it,” etc?

Sometimes I hear you using it in the show but it may be because you’re teachers, educated, etc..

Similar with the future perfect tense. Does it sound natural? Like “I’ll have finished cooking by the time you get home,” “next week we’ll have been together for ten years,” etc


Great question from Ondrej!

Today we’ll break it down and make the answer as clear as possible.

Three most common conversational situations with past perfect:

  • 1) retelling a story
  • 2) conditionals- if y had happened, x would have happened
  • 3) reported speech- you said you had..

How is this usually taught by English teachers?

I used to teach the past perfect using timelines and I would have students label events in their lives and say what happened before something else but I think in a conversation situation, unless you’re telling a story to give background, it’s not common to say things like “I had already visited Rome 3 times by the time I saw Paris.”

So the two situations where it’s more common:

In a story and when you use the 3rd conditional.

Listen to the episode for a real speaking example of how it’s used in a story. 

What about the future perfect?

To answer the second part of your question about the future perfect tense, “I will have finished cooking by the time you get home.”

This is not very common.

The only time I use this is when I am setting goals and even then it’s not often verbalized. 

You might say, “By the end of 2018 I will have climbed Mt. Aconcagua, I will have learned to scuba dive”  but it’s a mouthful to say that so instead we might say: I’m gonna climb Mt. Aconcagua in 2018.



These two tenses are not super common and are used only for specific situations that we have mentioned.

I think the textbooks and schools put these at the end of every syllabus as one of the final units and give it equal weight compared with the present perfect or the simple past, but if you really look at the frequency of use then you’ll see that they shouldn’t be weighted the same way.

A smarter way to learn English is figure out which tenses native speakers rely on heavily and focus 80% of your time on those.

What questions do you have?

Let us know in the comments below.

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