English grammar can be difficult to master and that’s partially because of all the different verb tenses we have. Some of them seem quite confusing to learners and even to native speakers! One of the confusing parts is choosing between the past simple and past perfect tenses.

In this lesson, I’m going to explain the two verb tenses and then show you the differences. Hopefully, by the time we’ve finished you’ll be able to use them with confidence.

Past Simple

Firstly, let’s look at the past simple tense. This is one of the most common verb tenses in English, so knowing how to use it properly is essential.

Basically, we use the past simple tense to talk about actions that happened and finished at a specific point in the past. For example:

  • She sat an exam yesterday.

Here, the past simple form of “to sit” is used: “sat.” We use the past simple tense here because we know that the event happened and finished at a specific point in the past (yesterday).

To form the past simple tense, we usually add “-ed” to the end of a verb but there are also many irregular verb forms. Here are some common irregular verbs turned into the past simple tense:

Here are some more examples of the past simple tense being used:

  • I walked to school when I was young.
  • She sang a beautiful song.
  • We met for lunch last week.
  • He cooked us an incredible meal.

Note that the specific point in the past is sometimes not stated. In the above examples, three of the sentences mention no particular time and one is very vague. However, we know that each action happened and finished and it can be assumed that it happened at a certain time. We just don’t know or haven’t said that time.

Past Perfect

The past perfect tense is used quite differently. We use it to say that something happened before another action in the past. This is very useful for showing the order in which actions occurred.

To form the past perfect tense, we use “had” and then the past participle of the main verb. The past participle may or may not be the same as the past simple form.  Here is an example:

  • By the time we got there, everybody had finished eating.

The past perfect here is “had finished.” In this case, “finished” is the past participle form of the verb “to finish.”

From this sentence, we know the order of events.

  1. Firstly, the people finished eating.
  2. Secondly, the speaker arrived at the place.

Note that we very frequently use “by” in sentences with the past perfect tense. This is because it indicates that an action or situation occurred prior to another, which is the purpose of the past perfect tense.

It is also quite common to use “already” with the past perfect tense because this emphasises the order of events as well.

One more thing: We often say “wish + past perfect” to talk about regrets – i.e. things that did not happen but that we wish had happened. Here are some examples:

Past Simple vs Past Perfect

Hopefully, you can now see that these two verb tenses are used quite differently. Their uses can be summarised thusly:

  • Use the past simple tense to show an action that happened and finished in the past at a specific time.
  • Use the past perfect tense to show that one action happened before another in the past.

Let’s look in more detail.

Say for example that two people met for dinner last Friday. We would typically use the past simple for this situation because we know it happened and finished at a particular time:

  • We ate dinner together on Friday.

In this case, the past simple is “ate.” (This is the past simple form of “to eat.”)

If the speaker arrived late and the other person had finished eating, we could use the past perfect tense:

  • I got there late and she had already eaten.
  • By the time I arrived, she had already eaten.
  • She had already eaten by the time I got to the restaurant.

You can see that there are many ways to express this but the verb tense (past perfect) shows us the order of actions.

explanation of the difference between the past simple and past perfect tenses

More Examples of Past Simple and Past Perfect

Here are some more examples.

  • She finished her homework quickly. (past simple)
  • She had finished her homework by 7 o’clock. (past perfect)
  • I bought a ticket to the concert. (past simple)
  • By the time I heard the tickets were on sale, they had already sold out. (past perfect)
  • I lost my keys. (past simple)
  • I had lost my keys, so I was not able to get into my house. (past perfect)
  • They finished their project. (past simple)
  • They had finished their project, so they celebrated by hosting a big party. (past perfect)
  • She visited Tokyo last year. (past simple)
  • She had never visited Tokyo before, but then she won a free trip in a competition. (past perfect)

Further Reading

You may be interested in these resources: