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Past perfect

Level: intermediate

The past perfect is made from the verb had and the past participle of a verb:

I had finished the work.
She had gone.

The past perfect continuous is made from had been and the -ing form of a verb:

had been working there for a year.
They had been painting the bedroom.

The past perfect is used in the same way as the present perfect, but it refers to a time in the past, not the present. We use the past perfect:

  • for something that started in the past and continued up to a given time in the past:

When George died, he and Anne had been married for nearly fifty years.
She didn't want to move. She had lived in Liverpool all her life.

For this use, we often use the past perfect continuous:

She didn't want to move. She had been living in Liverpool all her life.
Everything was wet. It had been raining for hours.

  • for something that happened several times before a point in the past and continued after that point:

He was a wonderful guitarist. He had been playing ever since he was a teenager.
He had written three books and he was working on another one.

  • when we are reporting our experience up to a point in the past:

My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I had ever had.
I was pleased to meet George. I hadn’t met him before, even though I had met his wife several times.

  • for something that happened in the past and is important at a later time in the past

I couldn't get into the house. I had lost my keys.
Teresa wasn't at home. She had gone shopping.

We often use expressions with for and since with the past perfect:

I was sorry when the factory closed. I had worked there for ten years
I had been watching that programme every week since it started, but I missed the last episode.

We do not normally use the past perfect continuous with stative verbs. We use the past perfect simple instead:

Up until that moment, I'd never believed (NOT been believing) in astrology.

Past perfect


Past perfect and past simple


Past perfect and hypotheses

We can also use the past perfect to make hypotheses about the past (when we imagine something). See these pages:


Hello. Could you please help me with the following sentence? Which one is correct or better than the other? Why?
- He didn't come to school because he had been ill.
- He didn't come to school because he was ill.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both sentences are grammatically possible.

The first (with had been) implies that the person was sick before school. It does not tell us whether or not the person was still sick when it was time to go to school. They may have been healthy by that point (but still weak or worried about making other people sick, for example).

The second sentence tells us that the person was sick when they were supposed to go to school

Neither sentence tells us anything about the present.



The LearnEnglish Team

This tip is helpful. Thanks.

Why is it not - She didn't move. She lived in Liverpool all her life. Please reply.

Hello Anit Shrestha,

Both the past perfect (had lived) and the past simple (lived) are possible in this sentence.

However, if we use the past simple then we are describing two events which form a sequence and the reader or listener would understand that first she chose not to move and as a result spent her whole life in Liverpool.

If we use the past perfect then it is clear that the decision to not move comes after the act of living in the city. In other words we understand that she decided not to move because all her life up to that point had been in Liverpool, so she had an attachment to the city.


In other words, past simple + past simple here gives us two actions in sequence.

Past simple + past perfect makes it clear that the second action in the sentence happened before the first.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, when do we use "I had never had" ?

Hello angeeeeeeel,

There are so many situations in which 'I had never had' could be used that I can't possibly describe them all, but I'll give you one example sentence:

'I had never had butter in my tea before I went to Tibet.'

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Starting at Ban Pong and crossing the bridge on the river Kwai in
Kanchanaburi, the railway line had once snaked its way through two hundred and fifty miles of dense jungle to the town of Thanbyuzayat in Burma.

Hi Team

Could you help me with the sentence that I’ve posted?
I have read that the past perfect tense goes with the simple past tense. Is that always the case? I think my sentence uses the past perfect (had once snaked) with a participle clause (or phrase, I’m not sure which).
Firstly, is it a grammatically correct sentence?
Secondly, is it grammatically acceptable to split ‘had snaked’ with ‘once’? (As in ‘had once snaked’)

Thank you so much for your help.


Hello Lexeus,

It's perfectly fine to put an adverb (once) between the auxilliary verb (had) and the past participle (snaked).

As far as the use of the past perfect in your example goes, it requires a past time reference point, but this may be included in the broader context in which the sentence appears. The use of the past perfect implies that the situation later (but still in the past) changed.



The LearnEnglish Team

What is the difference in meaning between these following sentences:

1. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I had ever had.

2. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I ever had.

3. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I have ever had.