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.

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


Hey! Could anyone, please, explain to me the logic behind this sentence. Why does the author use the past perfect tense here? Moreover, he does it two times.

'At the age of twenty, Susan Calvin had been part of the particular Psycho-Math seminar at which Dr. Alfred Lanning of U. S. Robots had demonstrated the first mobile robot to be equipped with a voice.'

Hell Elysium,

We use the past perfect to refer to a time before another time in the past when there is some connection between the two (cause, influence etc). In other words, the past perfect does not exist in isolation, but always references another action or state, whether explicitly stated or implicit.

In your example it is hard to say why the author used the past perfect because we do not see the whole context in which the sentence is used. This means that we do not know what the connection is between being part of the seminar and another, later, action. It could be that Susan Calvin had been part of... and so was well prepared to do something else, but we cannot see this from the sentence in isolation.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

Is the following sentance correct?

I have seen (past happening but current experience) the two headed snakes, when (referring to a past time) I visited (past tense) Vietnam.

Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,

Hello Kingson,

The sentence is not correct, I'm afraid. We do not use the present perfect (have seen) with a finished past time reference (when I visited). You need two past simple tenses here:

I saw the two headed snakes, when I visited Vietnam.


We would use the present perfect if the time reference is unfinished. For example, you could refer to your whole life up to now:

I have seen the two headed snakes in Vietnam.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much Peter for your time and response.
Can we say "I have seen two-headed snakes before(unfinished time reference, but in the past with a present experience), when I visited Vietnam"?
Thank you,

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

The problem with the sentence is that the phrase 'when I visited Vietnam' provides a finished time reference and so it cannot be used with the present perfect. The present perfect refers to an unfinished time, not a finished time. If you are no longer in Vietnam then that time period is complete and is not consistent with the present perfect.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very, very much Peter for your patience in answering my question.
The reason why I am making a doubt around the combination of Past tense and present perfect is, I was told that the following sentence is gramatically correct.
"My friend got married to the girl who has been working here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office). In this above sentence "got married" is the past tense. But "has been working" is the present perfect(continuous).
Please enlighten me in this regard. Please pardon me, if I give you too much trouble. I am a public speaker that's why I am trying to be crystal clear in my English grammar.
Thank you again, Peter.

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

The sentence 'My friend got married to the girl who has been working here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office' is fine, because the present perfect phrase does not provide a time reference for the past simple action, but simply provides more information about the girl.


As an aside, I would say that the sentence is a little odd and the present perfect does not seem to add any information. A more natural way to phrase it would be to use the present simple (permanent work) or continuous (temporary): 'My friend got married to the girl is working/works here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office.'



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter. That is really an eye opening fo me.
Have you finished (present perfect) reading the book that I gave(past tense) you? - in this sentence, "I gave you" - is this providing more information about the book?
Please clarify my doubt. I will be so grateful to you. I appreciate your service.
Thank you, again.

Hello Kingston,

That is correct. Well done!

The past tense gives us information about the book. Grammtically speaking, it is a restrictive or defining relative clause and has an adverbial function. It does not provide a time reference for the verb in the main clause.



The LearnEnglish Team