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

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Past perfect and past simple

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Past perfect and hypotheses

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

Comments

Hello radovan1972,

It seems to me that you've understood the use of the past perfect quite well, though I can see how its redundancy in some situations is frustrating. Whether or not the past perfect is required really depends on how sentences are constructed. For example, if the word 'before' isn't used, then the past perfect can be used to indicate that one actions happens before another. For example, in 'When I got to the station, the train had already left', the past perfect is clearly necessary unless we change the sentence to something like 'The train left before I got to the station'. In third conditionals, as you point out, it is also necessary.

Using the past perfect with the words 'before' and 'until' does indeed seem redundant and I don't see any difference in meaning between the three versions of each sentence that you ask about. None of them sound unnatural to me, either, which suggests that we do routinely use the past perfect in this way. It might help to think of the past perfect as being a way of emphasising things (rather than as necessary) in these cases.

I hope this helps you make sense of things.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Kirk.
You comment is very helpful. I am glad to hear that there is no difference in those three versions with "before" and "until". As that has been bothering me for ages and I haven't been able to get a good answer out of anyone :) I'll sleep much calmer now.
Radovan

Could I say: He had written three books and he is working on another one.
Thanks.

Hi rsduraosa,

I can't think of a context when this would be correct. The past perfect makes reference to a past time before the action of the verb, but there is no reference to another past time in this sentence -- there is a reference to the present.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks,
All the best,
rsduraosa.

Hello Sir
Thanks a lot for your answers regarding perfect tenses.
Please help me regarding this,too..
They have been staying with us since previous month.
They had been staying with us since previous month.
Which one is correct? Both or one then which one.
Thank you.
Regards
Lal

Hi Lal,

I'm afraid neither is correct, but both need only a minor change to make them correct. The second one would be correct if the word 'the' were inserted before 'previous' ('the previous month'). The first one would be correct if you changed 'previous' to 'last'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir
Please let me know the following sentences are right or wrong because I have doubts.
While my mother was cooking, the power went off.
While my mother has been cooking, the power went off. ( I think this is wrong-present perfect cont.) but while my mother had been cooking, the power went off.
Thank you.
Regards
Lal

Hello Lal,

The first sentence is correct. The second, as you say, is not. This is because the verb 'went' describes an action in a finished time frame, whereas 'has been cooking' describes unfinished time.

You could say 'While my mother has been cooking, the phone has rung three times'. This would all refer to unfinished time, so it would mean that she was still cooking and the phone might ring again.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir
One more question under the same (While my mother was cooking, the power went off.)
Can I say ?: While my mother had been cooking, the power went off.
Thank you.
Regards
Lal

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