Let’s talk about the plus-que-parfait. This is the French tense (technically, it’s an aspect, but I’ll try to leave the technical stuff out of this) that corresponds to things like I had vomited in English. (More on vomiting below.) In English, we call it the past perfect. It’s what we call a compound tense (see this post for an introduction to compound tenses and what makes them interesting).
If you want to talk about any of the compound tenses with your French teacher, you’re going to need to be able to remember their names. I find it easier to do that if I understand why a tense is called what it’s called, so let’s look at the Wikipedia page on the plus-que-parfait:
The word derives from the Latin plus quam perfectum, “more than perfect” – the Latin perfect refers to something that occurred in the past, while the pluperfect refers to something that occurred “more” (further) in the past than the perfect.
To expand on that a bit: the perfect, in grammatical terms, is used (in English, at any rate) to refer to an action that is completed. For example, while the past tense (a number of past tenses and aspects, actually) in English could be expressed as I vomited, the perfect would be I have vomited. If we wanted to express that the vomiting had been completed even before some other action, then we would use the past perfect: I had vomited. For example: I had vomited twice already before my mother came in and found me with my head in the toilet. Why this is the past perfect: it’s a perfect–a completed action–that is in the past tense with respect to something else. We’ve got two past-tense verbs in that sentence: came, and found. Prior to those events that we’re talking about in the past tense, the vomiting had been completed–in other words, a perfect that occurred prior to–in other words, in the “past tense” with reference to–something else that was in the past itself.
So, on to how to form the plus-que-parfait in French. It’s a simple formula:
imperfect + past participle
We looked at the imperfect in a recent post, so no need to go into that any further right now. The past participle could be any verb, but the imperfect is always going to be either avoir or être, according to the same rules by which you would select one or the other for the passé composé. So, here’s a straightforward example:
A nice one, with two examples–one with avait, and one with était:
Here’s one with negation (it’s always important to think about negation early when you’re trying to figure out a verbal system):
Here’s another one with the verb être as the imperfect verb (I know, it’s weird that the perfect is marked with a verb that we call “imperfect,” but that’s language for you–it’s never logical in the ways that one would think it should be):
…and, a last one with être to wrap up our introduction to the plus-que-parfait:
Click here if you’d like to read more about the French plus-que-parfait.