The plus-que-parfait

The plus-que-parfait (pluperfect) indicates a past action that happened before another past action started (in English, had done). It can be seen as “past” past tense.

Formation of the plus-que-parfait

To form the plus-que-parfait, use the forms of avoir or être in the imparfait + the past participle of the main verb.Let’s review the imparfait of the auxiliaries’ être and avoir:

Être -  to be

j’étais -  I was

tu étais  - you were

il/elle était -  he/she was

nous étions -  we were

vous étiez  - you were

ils/elles étaient  - they were

avoir  - to have

j’avais -  I had

tu avais -  you had

il/elle avait  - he/she had

nous avions -  we had

vous aviez  - you had

ils/elles avaient -  they had

Il avait toujours fini avant les autres.

He had always finished beforethe others.

Tu avais oublié l’anniversaire de ta meilleure amie.

You had forgotten your best friend’s birthday.

Il n’avait pas pu les joindre.

He had not been able to reach them.

Elle était partie sans laisser d’adresse.

She had departed without leaving an address.

In the plus-que-parfait, all pronominal verbs are conjugated with être and agree in gender and number with the subject.

Je m’étais évanouie dans la pharmacie.

I had fainted in the pharmacy.

Vous vous étiez promenés le long du canal Saint-Martin.

You had walked along the Saint-Martin canal.

Nous nous étions embrassés sur le Pont-Neuf.

We had kissed on the Pont-Neuf.

Il s’était souvenu de cet incident avant de revoir son ancienne amie.

He had remembered this incident before seeing his former girlfriend again.

Use of the plus-que-parfait

As we mentioned earlier, the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect) indicates a past action that happened before another past action started.This anteriority can be implied or stated. Therefore, the plus que-parfait is often combined with a dependent clause that states this clearly.

Je ne m’étais pas rendu compte que j’étais malade.

I had not realized I was sick.

Elle avait faim parce qu’elle n’avait pas eu le temps de déjeuner.

She was hungry because she had not had time for lunch.

Beware of the English language

Sometimes in English the French plus-que-parfait is translated as a simple tense. However, if there is any anteriority in a series of actions, the plus-que-parfait must be used in French.

Léa a dû prendre le médicament que le médecin lui avait prescrit.

Léa had to take the medicine the doctor (had) prescribed for her.

Elle a eu une réaction allergique au médicament qu’elle avait pris.

She had an allergic reaction to the medicine she took (had taken).

In Chapter 1, you studied depuis with the present tense. In Chapter 8, you studied depuis with the imparfait (where English uses the plus-que-parfait). Let’s review a few examples.

Ils dînent dans ce restaurant thaïlandais depuis des années.

They have been dining at this Thai restaurant for years.

Ils dînaient dans ce restaurant thaïlandais depuis des années quand ils ont décidé d’essayer restaurant d’en face.

They had been dining at this Thai restaurant for years when they decided to try the restaurant across the street.

Elle prend de la vitamine C depuis des mois.

She has been taking vitamin C for months.

Elle prenait de la vitamine C depuis des mois quand le médecin lui a dit de prendre aussi du calcium.

She had been taking vitamin C for months when the doctor told her to take calcium also.

The plus-que-parfait, when used with si seulement, expresses a wish or regret about past events.

Si seulement il n’avait pas attrapé un rhume!

If only he had not caught a cold!

Si seulement il était allé chez le médecin plus tôt!

If only he had gone to the doctor’s earlier!

Si seulement elle n’avait pas raté son examen!

If only she had not failed her exam!

Si seulement vous aviez pu être parmi nous!

If only you had been able to be with us!