Lesson #189: ‘We ought to use the pluperfect and say wakened …’: All About The Pluperfect/Past Perfect Tense in English

📗 ‘Feeling that Peter was on his way back, the Neverland had again woke into life. We ought to use the pluperfect and say wakened, but woke is better and was always used by Peter.’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1904)

Perhaps you have heard or even watched a movie on Peter Pan, the famous boy who never grows up and lives in a magical island called Neverland, as created by the Scottish writer J. M. Barrie. It is a relatively easy book to begin reading in its original English, if you haven’t yet read any classic.

I think it is my favourite children’s classic, partly for its story and partly for its wonderful humour and insights on how we think and feel. The language he uses is flowing and funny as it tries to reflect the language that children often use:

📗 “What is it?”

“Oh, you could never guess!” she cried, and offered him three guesses.

“Out with it!” he shouted, and in one ungrammatical sentence, as long as the ribbons that conjurers pull from their mouths, she told of the capture of Wendy and the boys.

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

👉 Because J. M. Barrie is retelling a story, he relies heavily on past tenses (although he also uses the present tense when he is describing the events that happened in England specifically).

He draws on the pluperfect (or past perfect tense as it is also know), which we will be covering in-depth here today. Keep reading to find out:

  • What is the pluperfect tense?
  • Two past tenses in a sentence: what word order is needed?
  • The placement of adverbs in pluperfect constructions
  • Pronunciation advice
  • Tips on how to contract words


✏️ We use the pluperfect when we are talking about two events that took place in the past, one before the other. As such, it helps to place different parts of a story or history in the right order.

Read this line from Peter Pan as an example:

📗 ‘… in his delight he forgot that he had shut Tinker Bell up in the drawer.’]

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Both ‘he forgot’ and ‘he had shut’ are actions that took place in the past, but the pluperfect shows you which one came first.

✏️ The pluperfect is formed by the auxiliary ‘had’ + the past participle of the main verb. ✏️

E.g. ‘had’ + ‘shut’ (past participle of the verb ‘to shut’)

Notice how both verb forms are in the past.

❗ NOTE: When trying to create the pluperfect, be careful that you never conjugate the auxiliary as a present perfect (e.g. ‘have’ or ‘has’), even if the person is plural! This is a common mistake among English learners.❗


If the pluperfect describes the first event of two that happened in the past, you may be wondering what tense we use to describe the second event that happened?

We use the past simple.

When you have both a past simple and a pluperfect in a sentence, the word order (or phrase order) does not actually matter, because the first event always uses the pluperfect and that is enough to distinguish its order.

So for example, we could reorder the previous line from Peter Pan as this:

✒️ He had shut Tinker Bell up in the drawer and in his delight he forgot [about it/her].

Compare this with the original line below – their meanings are the same:

📗 ‘… in his delight he forgot that he had shut Tinker Bell up in the drawer.’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan


✍️ These adverbs are so useful for explaining exactly when the events happened, especially if there is a close connection or reaction caused by one and impacting the other.

📗 ‘Nibs had to knock twice before he got an answer, though Tink had really been sitting up in bed listening for some time.’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (emphases mine – I have highlighted all the past tenses in bold)

As we can see from this quotation, the adverb is placed between the auxiliary and the past particple:

✏️ had + ADVERB + past participle ✏️



Already emphasises that something happened a little in advance or earlier than expected.

📗 ‘Alas, he had already forgotten that he owed his bliss to Wendy.’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (emphases mine – I have highlighted all the past tenses in bold)

📗 ‘There was not a porthole on the grimy glass of which you might not have written with your finger “Dirty pig”; and she had already written it on several.’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (emphases mine)

📗 ‘They alighted on the floor, quite unashamed of themselves, and the youngest one had already forgotten his home.’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (emphases mine)


Just emphasises that something happened immediately before something else. In the quotation below, another boy ‘sprang into the fray’ (jumped into the fighting) immediately before passing his sword through Mullins (killing Mullins – yes, there are some fighting scenes in Peter Pan!)

📗 ‘He had lifted up one boy with his hook, and was using him as a buckler, when another, who had just passed his sword through Mullins, sprang into the fray.’

– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (emphases mine)


Because auxiliary verbs are not usually stressed in spoken English, we often contract them together with the subject. So for example, using an earlier quotation you might say,

✒️ e.g. In his delight he forgot that he’d shut Tinker Bell up in the drawer.

This contracted form is more common in spoken English, and here are other contracted forms to be aware of:

I’d = I had

You’d = you had

She’d = she had

We’d = we had

They’d = they had

When the sentence is negative, the auxiliary contracts with ‘not’, as in:

I hadn’t

You hadn’t

She / he hadn’t

We hadn’t

They hadn’t

It hadn’t

⚠️ Don’t confuse these contractions with conditional tense contractions (e.g. ‘I would’ = ‘I’d’, ‘you would’ = ‘you’d’, etc). The difference between conditional tense and pluperfect tense contractions is as follows:

✍️ Conditional tense contractions are followed by an infinitive: e.g. ‘I’d go to the cinema if I had time’, or ‘they’d travel if the restrictions were lifted’.

✍️ Pluperfect tense contractions are followed by a past participle: e.g. ‘You’d bought that phone before the sales were announced.’

That is all for today’s Lesson! If you would like to review more materials on the pluperfect/past perfect and other tenses in the past, feel free to check my Lessons #155, #178, and #149.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)