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Latin Past Perfect Tense Verbs: An English Comparison

By John Garger

The Past Perfect or Pluperfect tense is used in Latin to indicate an action that happened before some other action that also occurred in the past. Learn how to form verbs in Latin's Pluperfect tense.

A verb’s tense indicates when an action took place. Both Latin and English have six tenses to indicate the time an action occurred. The Past Perfect tense of English is similar to the Pluperfect tense of Latin. Both function the same way even though they are known by these two different names. However, English requires a compound verb phrase to express the past perfect tense whereas inflections indicate use of the Latin’s Pluperfect.

The English Past Perfect Tense

English’s Past Perfect tense is formed using an auxiliary word plus the past participle of the main verb to indicate that the action took place before some other event or action which also occurred in the past. Usually, the word “had” tips off an English speaker that the past perfect tense has been used. For example, the sentence:

Mark had missed the exam by the time he woke up.

Notice that the word “had” indicates the compound phrase “had missed” is in the past perfect tense. It points out that before Mark woke up, he had already missed the exam. See how the past perfect indicates an action (had missed) that took place before another action (woke up) that also occurred in the past, just more recently that the past perfect verb phrase.

This construction is difficult for Latin students to grasp if they are not already familiar with English grammar. This fact is evidence that learning one’s own language makes learning another so much easier. Being a native speaker of a language does not necessarily qualify one to the academic language level needed to learn the intricacies of another language.

The Latin Pluperfect Tense

In Latin, the past perfect tense is usually known as the pluperfect. Either way, the tenses function identically. Of course, as an inflected language, Latin needs only one word to indicate a verb in the pluperfect tense rather than an auxiliary word plus main verb compound phrase. Take the following example:

Caesar inimicum superaverat

which may be translated as:

Caesar had defeated the enemy

Notice that although the verb is in the pluperfect tense (superaverat), it is not necessary to indicate what other event happened after this one. It is implied or supplied by context what the other event was that occurred after Caesar defeated the enemy. It need not be supplied in the same sentence. This is an important consideration because many beginning Latin students will assume the other action must be expressed immediately or in the same sentence.


The past perfect tense seems a bit strange at first but students generally get the hang of it after some exposure to the various Latin tenses. Luckily, the past perfect of English and the pluperfect of Latin function identically. Remembering to add the word “had” to any Latin to English translation of a past perfect tense verb will help keep this tense distinct from the other two past tenses.