When we talk about something that happened in the past we sometimes want to refer back to something that happened before that time. We can use the past perfect tense (had + past participle) to do this.


Look at these two sentences.


  • John left the house at 7:30 yesterday morning.
  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday.

Both actions happened in the past so we use the past simple tense. But look at how we can combine the sentences.

  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday but John had already left the house.

We use the past perfect (had left) because the action happened before another action in the past (Mary rang the doorbell.)

Look at some more examples of the past perfect.

  • When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine she realised she had washed the cat.
  • I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together but we’d lost touch with each other.

The past perfect is used because they were at school before he received the letter. It refers to an earlier past.

Look at these 2 sentences.

  • James had cooked breakfast when we got up.
  • James cooked breakfast when we got up.

In the first sentence, the past perfect tells us that James cooked breakfast before we got up. In the second sentence, first we got up and then James cooked breakfast.

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect can also be used in the continuous.

  • I realised I had been working too hard so I decided to have a holiday.
  • By the time Jane arrived we had been waiting for 3 hours.

The most common mistake with the past perfect is to overuse it or to use it simply because we are talking about a time in the distant past.

For example we would not say

The Romans had spoken Latin

but rather

The Romans spoke Latin

because it simply describes a past event, and not an event before and relevant to another past event.

Remember that we only use the past perfect when we want to refer to a past that is earlier than another time in the narrative.





Thank you for your replies, much appreciated.

Hi Kirk,
Thank you so much for your reply, this is very useful!
Could I ask you one more question please:
Is it common to use 'just' in combination with the Past Perfect or is it mostly used in combination with the Present Perfect, meaning an action a short while ago in the recent past? Thank you in advance once more!

Hi parachutist,

I'd say it's common with both the present perfect and the past perfect. The present perfect is used a lot more often than the past perfect, however, so if you looked at the number of occurences of each tense in a specific corpus, particularly of spoken English, I suspect you'd see it more occurences with the present perfect.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Could you help me please?
Is it correct to say:
When I arrived at the party, Ann had just left.
Or should I say:
When I arrived at the party, Ann had already left.
I was told that the adverb just is usually used in combination with the Present Perfect and not with the Past Perfect.
Thank you in advance.

Hi parachutist,

Both of these sentences are correct but describe the event with a different focus. 'Ann had just left' means she had left a short time before I arrived. 'Ann had already left' means that she left sometime before I arrived -- 'already' adds a bit of emphasis to the idea that she left earlier. In many cases, we could use either one of these sentences to speak about the same thing -- the choice of one or the other really depends on how we want to describe it.

'just' is probably more often used with the present perfect, but it can be used with other tenses (including the past perfect) as well. If you read the example sentences on the page I linked to, you'll see what I mean.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk,

Thank you for your reply!

However, I am still struggling with the adverb just: meaning recently but also only.

For example:
He has just gone to the post office; meaning he left to go to the post office a short while ago (Present Perfect)
He just went to the post office; meaning he only went to the post office and did nothing else (Past Simple).

The meaning of the last sentence is in British English.
Am I correct in assuming that in American English these two sentences would mean the same 'he left to go to the post office a short while ago'?
And if so, is there a tendency to use these two sentences in BE in the same way as the Americans do?

Thank you in advance!

Hi parachutist,

Yes, it can be unclear what exactly 'just' means because of its multiple uses and meanings. Usually the context will tell us what the meaning is, but sometimes we just have to guess or ask the person we are speaking with to clarify.

In both of your example sentences, without context (or perhaps even with context, depending on what it is), there is no way to know for sure whether 'just' refers to a recent trip or whether it is restrictive (meaning he went only to the post office). In British English, if he left a short time ago, it would be more common to use the present perfect ('he has just gone'); if a speaker of British English said 'just went', that could suggest that 'just' means 'only', though really context would be a more reliable indicator. In American English, 'just went' could easily mean either thing and so you'd have to ask or refer to context.

If you are the speaker, then of course you could use 'only' instead, or add a phrase like 'and did nothing else' or 'and came right back', which would clarify the meaning.

I hope this helps -- please let us know if you have any other questions.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

In the exercise it has exactly stated:
"Do NOT use continuous tenses."

But during the penultimate case correct answer was:
"had been burgled"

Is it the crooked description or I've missed something?
I would have attached a screenshot if I had the opportunity.
But presume the question is already clear without.

Hi sergey_34,

'had been burgled' is not a continuous form, but rather a passive form. A continuous form is one like 'had been being burgled' -- the -ing word makes it a continuous tense.

I've included a couple of links to pages that I think might be useful for you, but if you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask us.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot Kirk!
So silly of me. Was a bit in rush so just superficially looked only at "had been".

One more case to learn.