The pluperfect is a type of verb form, traditionally treated as one of the tenses of certain languages, used in referring to something that occurred earlier than the time being considered, when the time being considered is already in the past. The meaning of the pluperfect is equivalent to that of English verb forms such as "(we) had arrived" or "(they) had written".
The word derives from the Latin plus quam perfectum, "more than perfect" – the Latin perfect refers to something that occurred in the past, while the pluperfect refers to something that occurred "more" (further) in the past than the perfect.
In English grammar, the equivalent of the pluperfect (a form such as "had written") is now often called the past perfect, since it combines past tense with perfect aspect. (The same term is sometimes used in relation to the grammar of other languages.) English also has a past perfect progressive (or past perfect continuous) form: "had been writing".
Meaning of the pluperfect
The pluperfect is traditionally described as a tense; in modern linguistic terminology it may be said to combine tense with grammatical aspect; namely past tense (reference to past time) and perfect aspect (state of being completed). It is used to refer to an occurrence that was already in the past (completed) at a past time.
Bernard Comrie classifies the pluperfect as an absolute-relative tense, because it absolutely (not by context) establishes a deixis (the past event) and places the action relative to the deixis (before it).
- A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering had no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and more intensely.
Here, "had thought" and "had reached" are examples of the pluperfect. They refer to an event (a man thinking he has reached the limit of his capacity to suffer), which takes place before another event (the man finding that his capacity to suffer has no limit), that is itself a past event, referred to using the past tense (found). The pluperfect is needed to make it clear that the first event (the thinking and the supposed reaching) is placed even earlier in the past.
Examples from various languages
Some languages, like Latin, make pluperfects purely by inflecting the verb, whereas most modern European languages do so using appropriate auxiliary verbs in combination with past participles. The ways in which some languages form the pluperfect are described below.
Greek and Latin
Ancient Greek verbs had a pluperfect form (called ὑπερσυντέλικος, "more than completed"). An example is ἐτεθύκει, "had sacrificed" – compare the perfect τέθυκε, "has sacrificed". See Ancient Greek verbs. Modern Greek uses auxiliaries to form the pluperfect; examples are given in the table at the end of this article.
In Latin, the pluperfect (plus quam perfectum) is formed without an auxiliary verb in the active voice, and with an auxiliary verb plus the perfect passive participle in the passive voice. For example, in the indicative mood:
- Pecuniam mercatori dederat. ("He had given money to the merchant"; active)
- Pecunia mercatori data erat. ("Money had been given to the merchant"; passive)
The subjunctive mood is formed similarly (in this case dedisset and data sit respectively). In many cases an ablative absolute phrase, consisting of a noun and perfect participle in the ablative case, may be used in place of a pluperfect; for example: Pecunia mercatori data, cessit emptor, "When money had been given (more literally: With money given) to the merchant, the buyer left."
In English grammar, the pluperfect is formed by combining the auxiliary verb had with the past participle of the main verb, as in had jumped or had written. It is commonly called the past perfect, being a combination of perfect aspect (marked by the use of the have auxiliary with the past participle) and past tense (marked by the use of the past tense of that auxiliary, had). It is one of a number of analogously formed perfect constructions, such as the present perfect ("have/has jumped"), future perfect ("will have jumped") and conditional perfect ("would have jumped").
Unlike the present perfect, the past perfect can readily be used with an adverb specifying a past time frame for the occurrence. For example, it is incorrect to say *I have done it last Friday (the use of last Friday, specifying the past time, would entail the use of the simple past, I did it, rather than the present perfect). However there is no such objection to a sentence like "I had done it the previous Friday", where the past perfect is accompanied by a specification of the time of occurrence.
English also has a past perfect progressive (or past perfect continuous) construction, such as had been working. This is the past equivalent of the present perfect progressive, and is used to refer to an ongoing action that continued up to the past time of reference. For example: "It had been raining all night when he awoke."
Other Germanic languages
In German, the pluperfect (Plusquamperfekt, Präteritumperfekt or Vorvergangenheit, lit. pre-past) is used in much the same manner, normally in a nachdem sentence. The Plusquamperfekt is formed with the Partizip Perfekt (Partizip II) of the full lexical verb, plus the auxiliary verb haben or sein in its preterite form, depending on the full lexical verb in question. For example: Nachdem ich aufgestanden war, ging ich ins Badezimmer. After I had got up, I went into the bathroom. German allows for a double perfect construction, both in Perfect and Pluperfect. Double Pluperfect is formed by having the proper auxiliary in Preterite, the main verb in Partizip Perfekt and another instance of the proper auxiliary in Partizip Pefekt as well:
- "Ich hatte sie gesehen gehabt."
- I had her seen had
Double perfect and pluperfect is common in southern Germany, where it has widely replaced common perfect and pluperfect. However, pluperfect is considered to be legitimate in standard language, adding an additional tense to German:
- Ich umarmte sie. Ich hatte sie gesehen, nachdem sie mir gewunken gehabt hatte
- I embraced her. I had' her seen, after she me waved had had
As novels are written in preterite, the tense system is shifted and perfect becomes pluperfect. Double pluperfect then can be used to assume the role of common pluperfect. Also, it allows to add additional information:
- "Er hatte seine Heroinsucht überwunden."
- "He had his drug addiction overcame"; it implies that the speaker isn't addicted to drugs anymore.
- "Er hatte seine Heroinsucht überwunden gehabt."
- "He had his drug addiction overcame had"; it implies that the speaker overcame his addiction but relapsed.
When using modal verbs, it is possible to either use the modal verb in preterite or to use the proper auxiliar (haben for all modals):
- Es hatte regnen müssen/gemusst.
- "It had rained must.INF/must.PART"; note that "must" is usally left in infinite. To use past participle is uncommon for modals.
- Es musste geregnet haben
- "It must.PRET rained have"
There is a drastic shift of meaning between both variants: the first sentences denotes that it "had been necessary" to rain in the past. The second sentence denotes that it was to be assumed that it had rained.
In Dutch, the pluperfect (Voltooid verleden tijd) is formed similarly as in German: the voltooid deelwoord is combined with an auxiliary declination of hebben or zijn, depending on the full lexical verb: Voordat ik er erg in had, was het al twaalf uur geworden. - Before I noticed, it had become noon already. In addition, pluperfect is sometimes used instead of present perfect: Dat had ik al gezien (voordat jij het zag) - lit.: I had seen that (before you did). The parenthesized part is implied and, therefore, can be omitted.
In French the indicative pluperfect (Plus-que-parfait, "more than perfect") is formed by taking the appropriate form of the imperfect indicative of the auxiliaries avoir or être and adding the past participle, j'avais mangé.
In Italian there are two pluperfects in the indicative mood: the recent pluperfect (trapassato prossimo) is formed correspondingly to French by using the imperfect of the appropriate auxiliary verb (essere or avere) plus the past participle. For example, Ero affamato perché non avevo mangiato I was hungry because I had not eaten. The remote pluperfect (trapassato remoto) is formed by using the preterite of the appropriate auxiliary verb plus the past participle. In the Italian consecutio temporum, the trapassato remoto should be used for completed actions in a clause subjugated to a clause whose verb is in the preterite.
- Example (remote pluperfect): "Dopo che lo ebbi trovato, lo vendetti". (After I had found it, I sold it)
- Example (recent pluperfect): "Dopo che lo avevo trovato, lo vendevo". (After I had found it, I would sell it)
The second example may refer to an event that happened continuously or habitually in the past. (I.e. "After I used to find it, I would sell it" OR "After I would find it, I would sell it"). The first example, being the preterite, refers only to actions completed once in the remote past, or distant past.
In Spanish, the pluperfect (pluscuamperfecto, or antecopretérito) is (similarly) formed from the imperfect of the auxiliary verb haber plus the past participle. For example, Había comido cuando mi madre vino. I had eaten when my mother came.
In Portuguese, there is a synthetic pluperfect (mais-que-perfeito). For example, Quando cheguei, soube que o meu amigo morrera 'When I came, I found out that my friend had died'. Its use has become mostly literary, however, and in spoken Portuguese, the pluperfect is usually formed using the auxiliary verb ter plus the past participle. For example, Quando cheguei, soube que o meu amigo tinha morrido. A more formal way of expressing the pluperfect uses the verb "haver". For example: Quando cheguei, soube que o meu amigo havia morrido.
In Judeo-Spanish, the Latin pluperfect forms with little alteration have been preserved (e.g. final /m/ and /t/ are dropped) to express this tense (pluskuamperfekto), which is identical in form to the imperfect subjunctive. It has a similar form to the Portuguese, thus the Portuguese example above in Jidyo is, Kuando yegí suve ke mi haver morera 'When I came I knew that my friend had died'. It remains the main spoken form, though in some varieties, similarly to Spanish or Portuguese, the pluperfect is formed using the auxiliary verbs tener or aver plus the past participle. For example, Kuando yegí suve ke mi haver tuve morido or Kuando yegí suve ke mi haver avía morido.
In Romanian, the pluperfect (mai mult ca perfect) is expressed without any auxiliary words, using a particular form of the verb, originated in the Latin pluperfect subjunctive. (compare Italian imperfect subjunctive Sembrava che Elsa non venisse with Romanian pluperfect Părea că Elsa nu venise). For example, in Când l-am întrebat, el văzuse deja filmul 'When I asked him, he had already seen the movie'. The verb văzuse is in the pluperfect form of a vedea 'to see'. Technically, this form is obtained from the singular third person form of the simple perfect tense by adding specific terminations for each person and number. However, in northern Transylvania there is a regional way to state the pluperfect (that may reflect the German influence). The pluperfect is expressed by combining the auxiliary verb fost or the short version "fo'" (= "was" in English or "war" in German) with the participle, which (quite difficult to explain) is stated in its feminine form. Examples: "o fost foastă" (or "o fo' foastă") = he had been; "am fost văzută" = I had been seen; "or fost venită" = they had come.
In Galician, the pluperfect ( Pretérito pluscuamperfecto) is a simple tense formed by inflecting the verb: fuxiras = you (sg.) had fled.
In some of the Slavic languages the pluperfect has fallen out of use or is rarely used; pluperfect meaning is often expressed using the ordinary past tense, with some adverb (such as "earlier") or other periphrastic construction to indicate prior occurrence.
All of the Russian, the Ukrainian language and the Belarusian language still preserve a distinct pluperfect (давньоминулий час or запрошлы час – davn'omynulyj čas or zaprošły čas) that is formed by preceding the verb with buv / bula in Ukrainian and byŭ / była in Belarusian (literally, 'was'). It was and still is used in daily speech, especially in rural areas. Being mostly unused in literature during Soviet times, it is now regaining popularity. Here is an example of usage: Ja bylo pošol uzhe, kogda vdrug vspomnil... (Russian), Ja vže buv pіšov, až raptom zhadav... (Ukrainian) and Ja ŭžo byŭ pajšoŭ, kali raptam zhadaŭ (Belarusian) I almost had gone already when I recalled...
In Slovenian, the pluperfect (predpreteklik, 'before the past') is formed with the verb 'to be' (biti) in past tense and the participle of the main verb. It is used to denote a completed action in the past before another action (Pred nekaj leti so bile vode poplavile vsa nabrežja Savinje, 'A few years ago, all the banks of Savinja River had been flooded) or, with a modal verb, a past event that should have happened (Moral bi ti bil povedati, 'I should have told you'). Its use is considered archaic and is used rarely even in the written literary language.
In Polish there is no pluperfect except of texts written in or stylized to Old Polish, where it was formed with past (perfect) tense of być "to be" and past participle of the main verb. The person marking is movable, e.g. zrobił byłem ~ zrobiłem był "I had done". Past tense of the adjectival verbs (powinienem był "I should have done it") and conditional mood (zrobiłbym był "I would have done it") are often wrongly considered pluperfect forms.
In Serbian and Croatian, the pluperfect ("pluskvamperfekt") is constructed with the past tense ("perfekt") of the verb to be ("biti") plus the adjective form of the main verb. For example: "Ja sam bio učio", which means, "I had been studying".
In Welsh, the pluperfect is formed without an auxiliary verb, usually by interpolating -as- before the simple past ending: parhasem, "we had remained".
In Finnish, the pluperfect (pluskvamperfekti) is constructed with an auxiliary verb olla 'to be', which is in the past tense. The primary verbs get the past participle endings -nyt/-nut in singular, -neet in plural forms (the 'n' assimilates with certain consonants) and -ttu/-tty/-tu/-ty in passive forms.
Table of forms
|English||German||Dutch||Latin||Romanian||Portuguese||Spanish||Italian||French||Greek (Modern)||Bulgarian||Macedonian||Polish (extinct)|
|I had heard||ich hatte gehört||ik had gehoord||audiveram||auzisem||eu ouvira / tinha ouvido / havia ouvido||había oído||avevo sentito||j'avais entendu||είχα ακούσει||бях чул||бев слушнал||słyszałem był / słyszałam była|
|you had heard||du hattest gehört||jij had gehoord||audiverās||auziseşi||tu ouviras / tinhas ouvido / havias ouvido||habías oído||avevi sentito||tu avais entendu||είχες ακούσει||бе(ше) чул||беше слушнал||słyszałeś był / słyszałaś była|
|he/she had heard||er/sie hatte gehört||hij/zij had gehoord||audiverat||auzise||ele/ela ouvira / tinha ouvido / havia ouvido||había oído||aveva sentito||il/elle avait entendu||είχε ακούσει||бе(ше) чул||беше слушнал/-а/-о||słyszał był / słyszała była|
|we had heard||wir hatten gehört||wij hadden gehoord||audiverāmus||auziserăm||nós ouvíramos / tínhamos ouvido / havíamos ouvido||habíamos oído||avevamo sentito||nous avions entendu||είχαμε ακούσει||бяхме чули||бевме слушнале||słyszeliśmy byli / słyszałyśmy były|
|you had heard (pl.)||ihr hattet gehört||jullie hadden gehoord||audiverātis||auziserăţi||vós ouvíreis / tínheis ouvido / havíeis ouvido||habíais oído||avevate sentito||vous aviez entendu||είχατε ακούσει||бяхте чули||бевте слушнале||słyszeliście byli / słyszałyście były|
|they had heard||sie hatten gehört||zij hadden gehoord||audiverant||auziseră||eles ouviram / tinham ouvido / haviam ouvido||habían oído||avevano sentito||ils/elles avaient entendu||είχαν ακούσει||бяха чули||беа слушнале||słyszeli byli / słyszały były|
Different perfect construction
In German and French there is an additional way to construct a pluperfect by doubling the perfect tense particles. This is called doubled perfect (doppeltes Perfekt) or super perfect (Superperfekt) in German and plus past perfect (temps surcomposé) in French. These forms are not commonly used in written language and they are not taught in school.
Both languages allow to construct a past tense with a modal verb (like English "to have", in German "haben", in French "avoir"), for example "I have heard it". This is largely equivalent to the usage in English. The additional perfect tense is constructed by putting the modal verb ("to have") in the past tense as if being the full verb ("I have had") followed by the actual verb in the past particle mode ("I have had heard it"). The same applies to those verbs which require "to be" (Deutsch "sein", French "être") as the modal verb for the construction of the past tense (which would not work in English).
In spoken language in Southern Germany the doubled perfect construction has largely replaced the Standard German pluperfect construction.
In France it is uncommon in the Northern regions (with Parisian influence) but it can be found widely in Provençal dialects as well as in other regions around the world. In all regions the doubled pluperfect ("I had had heard it") is uncommon although it is possible - all of these forms emphasize the perfect aspect by extending the modal verb so that a doubled pluperfect would add upon the pluperfect in another part of the speech.
- German: Ich habe ihm geschrieben gehabt (instead of Ich hatte ihm geschrieben)
- German: Ich hatte ihm geschrieben gehabt (the doubled pluperfect emphasis)
- French: Il a eu déjeuné (instead of Il avait déjeuné)
- French: Il a eu fini de déjeuner (additional emphasis on the perfect aspect)
- Conditional perfect
- Future perfect
- Grammatical aspect
- Past tense
- Perfect (grammar)
- Present perfect
- Pluperfect progressive
- Preterite (simple past)
- Comrie, Bernard, Tense, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, p. 64.
- Comrie, Bernard, Tense, pp. 78-79.
- Dudenverlag. Duden - Die Grammatik. Mannheim: Dudenverlag, 2009.
- Manuela Nevaci. "Observații privind structura și evoluția conjunctivului în aromână" (in Romanian). Universitatea „Ovidius” Constanţa. p. 2.
- de:Doppeltes Perfekt
- fr:Temps surcomposé
|Look up pluperfect in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Grammar Tutorials - a column overview of the English tenses