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,
Which is right to say?
Have you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young? Or Had you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young?
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

Neither is correct. The phrase 'when you were young' tells us that the person is not young now, so the question is about a finished time period. The past simple is the best option:

Were you ever lifted up... when you were young?

The present perfect would be used if we were asking about the person's whole life, not just 'when you were young'.

We have no context for the sentence and no other time point for reference so there is no reason to use a past perfect.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much. I am becoming more confident in my English grammar, because of your help.
Regards,
kingson

I would like to get some explanation about why the past perfect tense is properly used in this sentence after "before":
"I left the dinner table before everybody had finished eating"

I have always been taught that when in combination with the past simple, the action that takes place first is expressed in past perfect and the second one in past simple. In the sentence above is quite the opposite.
Thank you!

Hello mara,

We can use the past perfect after 'before' when the action started before a certain time in the past, but was not completed.

In your example, the action of eating began before the person left the table. The use of the verb 'finish' is a little confusing, but in the context of eating we think of 'finishing a meal' as a process, not as a single momentary action.

 

Here is another example:

The guests arrived before I had finished preparing dinner.

My preparation began before they arrived, but was not finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much! It's a pleasure to count on such good help

Hello everyone!
I'm a little bit confused with the example 'James cooked breakfast when we got up'. If we got up before James coocked breakfast, don't we have to say 'James cooked breakfast when we had gotten up'?
Thank in advance.

Hello Dmevko,

The past simple is used for sequential actions, so it is fine to say he did this after we did that.

The past perfect makes clear a connection between two actions in the past. We use the past perfect, for example, when one action is the result of another, or is changed or influenced by another. The past perfect would not be wrong in your example, but there would need to be a reason to emphasise the relationship between the two actions beyond simple chronological sequence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your answer.
I have one question about present perfect and present perfect continuous tenses. Unfortunately I can't leave comments in those topics. Could you explain to me here?
In the topic about present perfect (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/intermediate-grammar/present-per...) there is an explonation "2 We also use the present perfect to talk about things that are unfinished – unfinished states and unfinished time periods.". At the same time the topic about present perfect and presen perfect continuous (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/intermediate-grammar/present-per...) has another explonation "The present perfect simple (I’ve read) gives the idea of completion while the present perfect continuous (I’ve been reading) suggests that something is unfinished.". How to understand this? Which from these two explonations is correct? Do I have to use present perfect to say about unfinished activity in some situations and what these situations are?

Hello Dmevko,

The present perfect describes actions occuring within an unfinished time period, but the action itself may be finished. For example, I use the present perfect in this sentence because the day has not ended yet:

I've read three short stories.

Here, I've finished the book and there is a result (I can tell you about it) but the time period (today) has not finished.

 

I use the present perfect continuous if I want to suggest that the action itself is not finished. For example:

I've been reading this book all morning. It's fascinating!

Here, the book hasn't been finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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