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 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.



Language level

Intermediate: B1


Dear sir,

I would like to know the meaning of the following sentences.

1.I have been able to speak English.
2.I have been able to study well.

Actually what do the above sentences mean? Can I speak English now? Could I study well?.

Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

It's difficult to say without at least knowing the context, but, for example, 1 could be something an English student said. For example, imagine one of my Spanish students went to study in the UK and I visited him there after he'd been there a few weeks. He might say something like 1 to me to refer to his time in the UK.

Knowing exactly what 2 means is also context dependent. Maybe someone who lives in a noisy house full of people would say this. Or it could be someone who's been ill and didn't expect to be able to concentrate. In either case, they are speaking about a period of time that began sometime in the past and which has just finished or is still continuing at the moment of speaking.

You can see more examples of this on our Present perfect page.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir,

I would like to know if these sentences are correct or not.

Initially, he had suffered from arthritis for 3 days.
A month later, his symptoms had not improved.
Today, he is still in pain.

Thank you sir.

Hello Hank,

Although it's hard to be sure without knowing the full context, I would suggest the following:

Initially, he suffered from arthritis for 3 days. A month later, his symptoms had not improved. Today, he is still in pain.

The first sentence is simply a statement about a finished past time so past simple is required. We use past perfect when we are looking back from a later (past) date, as in the second sentence where we are looking back from 'a month later' to the period before.

You can read more about the past perfect on these pages:

Talking about the past

Past perfect

Perfect aspect



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

I am confused regarding the grammar part of following sentence, please correct it:

Barack Obama had taught for twelve years in Chicago University; even he had not known that one day he would have been president of the USA.
Barack Obama had taught for twelve years in Chicago University; even he did not have known that he would have been president of the USA.

Hello Sharma Harry,
Neither sentence looks fully correct to me, though it is hard to say without knowing the context in which it appears and without knowing the speaker's intention. You could say the following:
> Barack Obama had taught for twelve years at Chicago University; even he did not know that he would one day be president of the USA.
However, as I said, I would need to know the full context to be sure. It may not be appropriate to use the past perfect (had taught), for example. This depends on the context.
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir,

She injured her shoulder playing tennis.

She injured her shoulder while playing tennis.

I hurt my back lifting that box.

I hurt my back while lifting that box.

I saw the above four sentences in a grammar book. I am a non native speaker, according to me the above sentences only with "while"
make sense. Kindly enlighten me.

Can we use a present tense with a past perfect? e.g: "He records what had happened in ancient times." Please give me an answer. Thank you.

Hello kingsonselvaraj,
That sentence is not correct as the past perfect needs a second past time for reference. This can be implied by the context rather than stated explicitly, but it is necessary. Without this, we simply use the past tense (simple or continuous):
> He records what happened in ancient times
It is possible to have a present tense with the past perfect, but only if there is a second past tense for reference. For example:
> I know what you had done - incorrect without any other past time reference in the context
> I know what you had done before she arrived - correct
The LearnEnglish Team