Past Simple vs. Past Perfect – Differences and Usage

Nov 20, 2021

If you’re learning English, being able to speak in detail about the past can help you sound like a native. This requires an understanding of past simple and past perfect tense so you can use them correctly. Also, making a difference between them is important if you don’t want to sound odd.

Past Simple

Even though these are two common past tenses in the English language, they are used together mostly in written English. Still, knowing their differences is crucial to communicating effectively.

Past Simple vs. Past Perfect Tense

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of each tense so you can understand their differences as well as how to use each correctly.

Past Simple Tense – Usage, Form, and Examples

Past Perfect

This is the most commonly used tense in English when referring to the past. It’s used to talk about actions completed in the past without focusing on the process of performing the action.

In other words, you use this tense when referring to past actions when it’s not important to say whether they were completed a long time ago or recently.


Here are the most common situations when past simple is the right tense to use:

  • To talk about actions that started and ended in a specific time in the past. You can also use it without specifying a time as long as it’s already known that you’re talking about a finished period.

Ex. I went to a concert last night.

  • To talk about multiple actions all of which were completed in the past.

Ex. I got up, brushed my teeth, and had breakfast.

  • To talk about a long process that started and ended in the past. You should specify the duration of the process with phrases such as “all night”, “two months”, and “for two years”.

Ex.She was in a coma for 6 months.

  • To talk about past habits. When using past simple for this purpose, you can replace it with the phrase “used to”. Here, you should make sure the other person knows that the action you’re talking about is a habit. To emphasize this, use time expressions such as usually, always, never, frequently, and often.

Ex. I usually had eggs for breakfast when I was in high school.

How to Form Past Simple Tense

To form this tense, you should use the simple past form of the verb in a sentence. It’s pretty easy as verbs have the same form in past simple for all subjects (I, you, she/he/it, we, they) except the verb “to be” (was for I, she, he, and it; were for you, we, and they).

So, the formula for affirmative sentence in past simple tense is:

Subject + verb in past simple + object

Ex. I had a party last week.

Ex. She was in London the entire summer.

Ex. They were my best friends for ages.

Here are the formulas for negative sentences and questions in past simple:

Subject + did not/didn’t + base form of a verb + object – for negative sentences

Ex. I didn’t go to the party last night.

Did + subject + base form of a verb + object? – for questions

Ex. Did you go to the party last night?

Past Perfect Tense – Usage, Form, and Examples

past tenses

This is another common tense native speakers use when referring to the past. It’s used when talking about an action that was completed before another action in the past. So, in this tense, we want to point out the activity that took place before another past activity.

Native speakers use it to make things clearer and more specific when referring to a sequence of events in the past.

Ex. Tina was tired as she had studied all night.

As you can see, we almost always use it with another past tense, typically past simple. And, we often use it with the following adverbs: previously, just, already, yet, and never.

Ex. When Tom arrived, the lesson had already started.

Ex. I sold my bike on Sunday. I had had it for 5 years.

Ex. Mary had just returned from school when I got up.


Here are the most common situations when past perfect is the most appropriate tense to use:

To talk about something that happened before another activity in the past:

Ex. I was happy to see my sister had won the prize.

To talk about a condition (usually an if-clause) and a result:

Ex. If she had seen me with her boyfriend, she wouldn’t have talked to me this morning.

Make sure you don’t use this tense when you’re not referring to a sequence of past events.

How to Form Past Perfect Tense

Forming past perfect is rather easy. You just have to remember to put “had” in front of the past participle of the verb.

Here’s the formula for affirmative sentences in past perfect:

Subject + had + past participle of a verb + object

Ex. I had seen her before.

Here’s the formula for negative sentences:

Subject + had + not (hadn’t) + past participle of a verb + object

Ex. I hadn’t seen her before.

And the formula for questions in this tense:

Had + subject + past participle of a verb + object?

Ex. Had you seen her before?

Past Simple vs. Past Perfect – What Is the Difference?

Although both tenses are used for past activities, they have different uses. In general, past simple is used when talking about a completed action in the past without pointing out the process of the activity or when exactly did it take place.

On the other hand, past perfect is used when talking about a sequence of events that happened in the past while pointing out which activity happened before the other one.

To Sum Up

English native speakers use both past simple and past perfect when talking about the past, especially in writing. Even though past simple is more commonly used in speech, past perfect is necessary when you want to talk about two or more actions that happened in the past and to emphasize which happened before the other ones.

Milena Popova

Milena is an ESL teacher with over 8 years of experience in providing original content. She enjoys writing educational articles that may help English language learners understand some aspects of English.

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