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


Hello andreus1999,

Simple forms can include duration:

I lived in Paris for many years.


We use progressive aspect when an action is interrupted by another event:

I was living in Paris when my brother got married.


There are other uses of progressive aspect. You can read about them on this page.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi learn English team
I was searching on the internet and I found this sentence: yesterday we had walked to school but later rode the bus home.
But then the sentence was corrected and had walked changed with walked
Why here the past perfect changed to past

Hi Aya salah,

It's really difficult for us to explain this without the context, as there are so many possibilities and to explain them takes quite a bit of effort on our part. But, to try to help you, note that the past perfect doesn't make sense if there isn't some other past reference point. I suppose that's why this sentence was corrected this way.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you a lot Mr. Kirk for the response.
Thanks for The LearnEnglish Team

I want to comment and ask questions to get help from you on other topics too..for example on "tag questions" or any other topics but as i see no one has commented on the mentioned topic..can we ask our questions here for other topics too?
Thank you a lot...

Hello bakh.sh85,

You are welcome to ask us questions about question tags or other topics. We only ask that you ask them on the most relevant page you can find. For example, to ask about question tags, the most logical page would be our question tags page, but since there is no space for comments there, the next most relevant is probably questions and negatives.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Mr. Peter
It helped a lot and still it may be confusing to me the use of some words like 'before' , 'until' and 'by the time" and "when". For example, if I say "When she called, I went out." it means both actions happened at the same time OR "When she called, I had gone out." it means the second part happened before the first part which is 'When she called, ... '. AND please tell me if the following sentences can be both correct or not:
Until 1800, most immigration had been from Britain.
Until 1800, most immigration was from Britain.

Hello bakh.sh85,

The relationships between different verb forms are quite nuanced. For example:

When she called, I went out. [I left at the moment she called, possibly as a result of the call]

When she called, I had gone out. [I was not at home when she called]

When she called, I was going out. [I was in the process of leaving when she called]


Both the sentences about immigration are possible. Without knowing the context in which they are used, I cannot say which is better.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, may I clarify one thing?

When we are looking forwards from past, are we allowed to use past perfect for sequencing actions? For example can we say: "He said that I would receive a confirmation e-mail that the reimbursement had been made".

Thank you

Hi elaliyev,

The sentence is correct – well done.

However, please note that the past perfect is not used because the actions are in sequence. To describe a sequence of actions we use the past simple:

I read the documents again before I made the phone call.

We use the past perfect because there is some relationship between the earlier action and the later one. It may be that the earlier action causes or allows the later one, or influences it in some way. In your example, the email is sent as a result of the reinbursement, and so the past perfect is appropriate as it signals this relationship.



The LearnEnglish Team