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Past perfect

Do you know how to use phrases like she had left, he hadn't studied and we had been waiting?

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 someone else's laundry.
  • 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.

NOTE
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.

 

Exercise

Language level

Intermediate: B1

Comments

Dear Sir,
Is it a necessity that the present tense has to be changed into a past tense in a reported speech.
e.g. Direct: Tim said to Tom," John is at home"
Indirect: Tim told Tom that John was at home.
Direct: Tim said to Tom, "John was at home".
Indirect: Tim told Tom that John had been at home.
Are the above mentioned conversions (from direct to indirect) right?
And one more thing............
Can we say the above mentioned statements without changing the tenses?
e.g. Direct: Tim said to Tom," John is at home"
Indirect: Tim told Tom that John is at home. (The present tense is not changed)

Direct: Tim said to Tom, "John was at home".
Tim told Tom that John was at home (Past tense is not changed)
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

Yes, those first two pairs of sentences are all correct -- well done!

It is possible to say the other two pairs of sentences you ask about, but the first one ('Tim told Tom that John is at home') in particular would only be correct when we know that John is still at home at the time this sentence is used.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Thank you very much that you have not given up in helping me. I am becoming so confident in English, due to your constant help. I am just trying to know about English grammar for 100%. So please do not mistake me if I ask you any silly question.
Now........... my further question to your answer is............
Can we use future tense in the Direct/indirect sentences that I mentioned earlier.
e.g. Direct: Tim said to Tom, "John will be at home".
Indirect: Tim told Tom that John will be at home.
Is this right?
(or )Indirect: Tim told Tom that John would be at home - Is this right?
Please let me know which is right. Please let me know the difference.
Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

Both modals will and would are possible here. The difference is how the speaker sees the situation.

 

Tim told Tom that John will be at home.

Here, the speaker expects the situation to still be true. In other words, the expectation is that John is still at home now.

 

Tim told Tom that John would be at home.

Here, the speaker expects the situation to not be true now. This may be because time has passed since Tim spoke to Tom, or it could be because Tim is unreliable.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter,
Thank you very much for your efforts to answer my question. I had this question for a long time in my mind. Now you have answered it.
The further question which arises from your answer is..............
Direct: Tim said to Tom "John has not finished the work"
Indirect: Tim told Tom that John had not finished the work.
Can we say it in the following form ?..If the speaker knows that the "work" has not been finished by John, yet.
Indirect: Tim told Tom that John has not finished the work.
Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

Yes, that is correct. Well done!

"John has not finished the work"

 

  • Tim told Tom that John had not finished the work. [the work was not finished when Tim said this; we do not know if it is finished now]
  • Tim told Tom that John has not finished the work. [the work was not finished when Tim said this and we understand that it is still not finished now]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello can we use past perfect to describe two or more actions
EXAMPLE
They had found it and they had investigated it but they had never found a solution for it.I know this is a dumb question but thr was something similar to this in a novel.
So can we deacribe two or more past actions using past perfect?
How?

Hello Nabeelah,

It's fine to use the past perfect for multiple actions so long as there is a later past time reference point. The past perfect has the meaning of before then, so there must be another point in the past before which the events take place. For example, your sentence without any context would not make sense as there is no later point of reference. Of course, in context there probably would be:

Before 1998 there was little progress. They had found it and they had investigated it but they had never found a solution for it. But in 1998 that changed.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,
Which one of the following sentence is correct?
Jesus said that we need to do it until he comes.(It is a fact - "we need to do it" - so, present tense is used here)
or
Jesus said that we needed to do it until he came.( It is said in the past, so past tense is used - "we needed to do this until he came" - And it is a reported sentence as well)
I am so confused here, as to how can I say this. Please help me in this regard.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

Both forms are possible. When we shift the tense back in reported speech it does not mean that the action is in the past.

For example:

 

Direct speech:

I like you.

Reported speech:

1. She said that she liked me.

2. She said that she likes me.

Both options are grammatically correct. The first sentence tells us that she liked me at the time she said it. It does not tell us if this is still true or not. The second tells us that she liked me at the time she said it and that it is still true today.

In your example, the context within the sentence (until he came) already tells us that the action is still true, so whether or not the tense is present (need) or past (needed) makes no difference.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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