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Past perfect and simple past compared

The past simple tense The past perfect tense
  • In 1976, 60% of families were couples with children.
  • In 1981, 34% of children aged 20-24 lived with their parents.
  • By 1996, this had fallen to 51%.
  • By 1991 this had increased to 40%.

It is easier to understand the past perfect tense if you think of it as an earlier past tense.

1996 was a date in the past
  • The fall to 51% occurred before 1996.
  • It was completed by 1996.
1991 was a date in the past
  • The increase to 40% occurred before 1991.
  • It was completed by 1991.

Earlier past events or situations are indicated by the past perfect tense.

The past simple tense and the past perfect tense are often used in the same sentence.

  • Several senior employees had left the company by the time the new manager arrived.
This can be shown on a time line

earlier past more recent past present time
  • senior employees had left.
  • new manager arrived.

Both events were in the past, but one occured earlier than the other.

Further examples Comments
  • They announced that he had resigned for personal reasons.
This is an example of reported speech. The actual announcement was: "He has resigned for personal reasons".
  • When he took over, productivity had already been declining for two years.
had been declining is an example of the past perfect continuous tense.
  • Before the installation of the new line, productivity had been very low.
There is no past simple verb here, but the installation is the more recent action.
  • Until the new software was purchased, the staff had struggled to keep the accounts records up to date.
Here, the passive voice is used to describe the more recent action, software was purchased.

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