The French plus que parfait past tense is fortunately neither very hard to understand nor to master. The exact same concept and tense also exists in English, though as a native speaker you may have never consciously paid attention to it.
Essentially, it’s a way to talk about one past event occurring before another past event.
Before I found out that the woman was a celebrity, I had guessed that she was very wealthy.
How to form le plus-que parfait
In terms of the way you conjugate plusque parfait, it’s almost a mash-up of imparfait and passé composé.
- Like with passé composé, you use a “helping verb” that’s (usually) the conjugated form of avoir. You also use the past participle version of the verb.
- The helping verb conjugation you use with plus-que parfait, however, is not the present tense form of avoir; it’s the imperfect form.
For example, all the past tense forms (not counting the subjunctive) are listed below so that you can see their similarities and differences. The verb being conjugated is apprendre (to learn). Therefore, the sentences below translate as:
- Passé composé: “You learned” or “You have learned”
- Imparfait: “You learned” or “You were learning”
- Plus-que parfait: “You had learned”
Elle a réalisé qu’ils avaient oublié sa promesse. (“She realized that they had forgotten his promise.”)
J’ai découvert que le magasin avait fermé il y a une heure. (“I discovered that the store had closed an hour ago.”)
Plus-que parfait with être verbs
Just as with passé composé, there is a list of verbs (often called the “Dr Mrs Vandertramp” verbs as a mnemonic for the first letters of each verb in this category). They are different because:
- They get conjugated with être instead of avoir, and
- They get verb agreement with the subject of the sentence.
Après les parents de Paul étaient sortis au ciné, sa petite amie est venue chez eux. (“After Paul’s parents had gone out to the movies, his girlfriend came to their house.”)
The past participle of sortir, sorti, receives an s because the subject, les parents, is plural, and the past participle of venir, venu, receives an e because the subject, sa petite amie, is feminine.
And, for bonus points, with the past tense subjunctive:
Nous étions déjà partis avant que notre commande soit arrivée. (“We had already left before our order arrived.”)
The past participle of partir, parti, receives an s on the end since the subject, nous, is plural. Similarly, the past participle of arriver, arrivé, receives an extra e because the noun la commande is feminine. Finally, avant que is a subjunctive structure, so commande is followed by soit, not est.
In conclusion, anytime you need to use plus que parfait, these should be your steps:
- Start with the imperfect tense of either avoir or être (with the usual subject-verb agreement for the avoir/être conjugation, of course).
- Add on the past participle form of the main verb (which are the same past participles you’ve learned for passé composé).
- If the verb is an “être verb”, check the subject of the sentence to see if an e, s, or es needs to get added to the end of the past participle.