Le plus-que-parfait: The French tense that’s more than perfect

Celine Segueg

Le plus-que-parfait… quite literally, the tense that’s more than perfect! All about actions or situations that took place before another past action, this tense actually goes by two names in English: the pluperfect and the past perfect.

Not heard of it before? Le plus-que-parfait is certainly one of the more advanced French tenses, and much less commonly used than the imparfait or the passé composé, so it’s rarely covered in the early stages of learning French. That being said, it’s still important to learn, as it’s very useful for when you want to tell stories or anecdotes.

In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about le plus-que parfait, including plenty of examples.

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How to form le plus-que-parfait

To conjugate le plus-que-parfait, we need to use the imperfect form of avoir and etre as an auxiliary verb alongside the past participle of the main verb.

Using the auxiliary verb

Start by choosing avoir or être as your auxiliary verb. While être typically means to be, when it’s used as an auxiliary verb like this, it can also be translated as to have.

Most verbs take avoir as their auxiliary, but a few do take être, including all reflexive verbs. Verbs in the following list, and any verbs related to them, such as revenir for venir or redescendre for descendre, will also take être.

naître to be born arriver to arrive
mourir to die partir to leave
aller to go entrer to enter
venir to come sortir to leave
monter to climb apparaître to appear
descendre to descend rester to stay
retourner to return tomber to fall

Once you’ve chosen between avoir and être, you’ll need to conjugate it into the imperfect. You can see the conjugations in the table below.

Avoir Être
J’avais J’étais
Tu avais Tu étais
Il / elle avait Il / elle était
Nous avions   Nous étions
Vous aviez Vous étiez
Ils/elles avaient Ils / elles étaient

The past participle

Once you’ve selected and conjugated your auxiliary verb, you’ll need to add on the past participle to describe the action. For regular verbs this is fairly straightforward: you find the verb stem of the infinitive and add on one of three endings depending on whether the infinitive ends in -er, -ir, or -re.

This looks like this in practice:

Verb type Past participle Example
  • er verbs
  • é
manger > mangé
  • ir verbs
  • i
Finir > fini
  • re verbs
  • u
Vendre > vendu

However, many verbs have irregular past participles – especially the most common ones! Unfortunately, there’s no way around learning these other than to simply memorise them by heart. We won’t discuss all of these in this post, so if you’d like a list of irregular past participles, explore our full guide to le participle passé.

Remember, if you’re using etre as your auxiliary verb, you’ll need to agree the past participle with the gender and number of the subject or object of a sentence. To make a past participle plural, simply add an additional -e to the end. To make it plural, add an -s, and to make it both feminine and plural, add an -es.

  • Elle était allée le voir. – She had been to see him.
  • Vous étiez restés une journée supplémentaire. – You had stayed an extra day.

In negative sentences, we sandwich the auxiliary with ne and pas (or whichever negative construction you choose), with the past participle following directly. If there’s a reflexive or direct object pronoun in the sentence too, that will be placed immediately before the auxiliary. Here are some plus-que-parfait examples to show what we mean.

  • Elle n’était pas partie. She hadn’t left.
  • Je n’avais jamais visité. I had never visited.
  • Je ne l’avais pas vu. – I hadn’t seen him.
  • Je ne m’étais pas encore réveillé(e). – I hadn’t woken up yet.

When to use le plus-que-parfait

So, when do we actually use le plus-que-parfait?

To describe an action that occurred before something else

We use le plus-que-parfait to talk about something that occurred before another past action. It helps us to establish the order of events and is used to give background information about a situation that happened before the main part of the story, but that’s still related in some way.

  • J’étais sorti quand tu as arrivé. – I had left when you arrived.
  • Il n’a pas dîné parce qu’il avait déjà mangé. – He didn’t have dinner because he had already eaten.

While le plus-que-parfait is often used with another past tense, we don’t always need to explicitly mention the second action in the same sentence. We can just imply it.

  • J’avais déjà fini. – I’d already finished.
  • Elle l’avait fait au préalable. – She made it beforehand.

To express a hypothetical situation

We also use le plus-que-parfait in si clauses to talk about a hypothetical situation or action in the past that would have produced a different result to what actually happened. In English, this is called an if/then construction. We use le plus-que-parfait for the hypothesis, and the conditionnel passé for the end result.

  • Si tu avais fait ceci, j’aurais fait cela. – If you had done this, I would have done that.
  • S’il avait eu assez d’argent, il l’aurait proposé. – If he’d had enough money at the time, he would have offered it.
  • Si j’avais su, je n’aurais jamais dit ça ! – If I’d known, I would never have said that!

Again, sometimes the second clause might only be implied.

  • Si seulement tu étais arrivé à temps ! – If only you had got there in time!

When not to use le plus-que-parfait

It’s tempting to think that any situation where you’d use ‘I had (+past participle)’ in English would result in le plus-que-parfait, but don’t be fooled! There are some situations in which English speakers would use the pluperfect but where we would need to use a different past tense in French. Let’s take a quick look.

With depuis

If your sentence would include depuis, it’s likely that you should use the imparfait tense instead of le plus-que-parfait in French, even if you would use it in English.

  • Nous attendions depuis deux ans. We had been waiting for two years / We had waited for two years.
  • Ils étaient ensemble depuis six ans. – They’d been together for six years.

With venir de

In English, the expression ‘had just done something’ is expressed in the pluperfect, but in French, we use ‘venir de’ in the imperfect instead.

  • She had just woken up when the children arrived. – Elle venait de se réveiller quand les enfants sont arrivés.
  • Je venais d‘y penser ! – I had just thought of that!

With a list

If you’re making a list of things that happened in the past, whether they happened one after the other or at the same time, you should use the passé composé. We only use le plus-que-parfait when the two actions relate to each other in some way.

  • J’ai fini mes devoirs et je suis allé faire du shopping. -I finished my homework and went shopping.

Even though finishing the homework happened before the shopping, these two clauses don’t impact each other, so we use the passé composé. However, if the shopping was dependent on finishing the homework, we’d use le plus-que-parfait.

  • J’avais fini mes devoirs, alors je suis allé faire du shopping. – I’d finished my homework, so I went shopping.


There you have it! In this post, we’ve explored one of the less common French past tenses, le plus-que-parfait. We’ve looked at how to use it, when to use it, and, just as importantly, when not to use it, complete with plenty of le plus-que-parfait examples along the way. If you hadn’t read this guide, you would never have known!

You’re now set to use le plus-que-parfait confidently. But one final thing to remember before you go: when you’re writing plus-que-parfait, you need to include the hyphens. Plus que parfait just isn’t the same!