The past perfect tense is used to refer to actions that took place and were completed in the past. The past perfect is often used to emphasise that one action, event or condition ended before another past action, event, or condition began.

Each of the highlighted verbs in the following sentences is in the past perfect.

John arrived at 5:00 p.m. but Mr Turner had closed the shop

All the events in this sentence took place in the past, but the act of closing the shop takes place before John arrives at the shop.

After we found the restaurant that Anne had told us about, we ate dinner there every Friday.

Here the praise ("had told ") precedes the finding ("found") of the restaurant. Both actions took place sometime before the moment of speaking or writing.

Bill had used up all the paper so we placed a new order.

In this sentence, both actions take place in the past, but the using up of the paper ("had used up ") preceded the ordering of the new paper.

Common Usage Errors

A common error is to use the past perfect tense unnecessarily to refer to past events.

Yes, I had already given them my reply. incorrect

In the above example, the past perfect is used unnecessarily instead of the present perfect, perhaps because had given seems more 'past' than have given.

Here's another example of misuage of the past perfect:

Several years ago, we had sold fax machines, but we don't any more.incorrect

Here, the past simple sold is sufficient (even though we sold fax machines is before we don't any more) because you are not comparing the two past times.

TIP: It is best to avoid the past perfect tense unless you are sure how to use it. In fact it is not used very much in business writing.