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


Hi SIr,
I am very happy joining it.
Thank you very much for creating this site.

Hi everyone,
I am the new member in this community. I do need your help with my English practical. My most concern about English is speaking.

Hi Ringsey,

Welcome to LearnEnglish! To work on your speaking, I'd suggest working with our audio and video materials under Listen & Watch, and would particularly recommend Series 3 of the Elementary Podcasts as a good place to start. There are transcripts and exercises to help you improve your listening comprehension, and you can use the audio as a model that you can imitate to learn new expressions and improve your pronunciation and oral fluency, which will also increase your confidence.

It's also of course essential to speak with other people as often as you can. Perhaps you have a friend or colleague or family member who knows some English - try speaking only in English with that person, or at least part of the time only in English. If you can, use some of the expressions you learned from the podcasts when you're speaking.

Whatever you do, it's best to try to have contact with English every day, even if it's only for a short time. Little by little, you should see that you improve!

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,
I dream to be an author of English language.I should inform you that My native language is not English.When I sit  to write I  don't get the right word at the right time.I think i happens as I am a first year university student.I would like to learn a lot of words.Please give few but effwctive tips you think will work for me.
I look forward to your answer.
Thank you

Hello Frank,

To improve your writing (including word usage), it's important to read and write as much as you can. It would also be really helpful to get feedback from a teacher or knowledgable friend on your writing if possible. Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to give users individualized feedback on their writing, but you can still use LearnEnglish to do quite a lot of work on your own.

If you're interested in academic writing, see our section called Writing for a Purpose. You can respond to other users in the comment sections to carry on a written conversation, just as I am responding to you now. Good writers learn from reading other writers' texts, so you could learn a lot about writing from reading the content on the site. The Magazine or Stories & Poems sections might be good places to start if this interests you. You can also of course carry on written conversations there in the comments as well.

Whatever you do, try to spend at least 15 minutes a day (or at least several days per week) reading and writing. When you have doubts, ask a friend or teacher, or you're also welcome to ask us periodically here.

Good luck and don't give up!

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team

hello sir kirk
i m vipin from India and i read   newspaper regular  but i cannot remember sentence and i also Prectice  English  a lot but in spoking and in writing problem always dispointed me please suggest me some good tip beacuse i read your many comment but i m not satisfice with them .

Hi vipin.baisoya,

Could you please describe to me in more detail how you have tried to improve your English? For example, you mention that you read the newspaper regularly. How often do you read the newspaper? Do you just read, or do you look up unknown words? Do you generally understand the articles? How much time do you spend doing this per day or per week? How long have you been doing this? What kind of writing do you do? How often? Do you study or practice in any other way?

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team


Hi Sir, 
The following question has been confusing me since long.
Steve: I didn't get your email
me:  But I had sent it to you
In the above conversation i want to say that i had sent that email long before he checked it or as soon as i was told to do it.  So is my answer right or wrong ?
Because i am not specifying any activity that happened before .....i.e. i am using only half part of past perfect tense so does that make my answer wrong?

Hi maluram,

Your answer is possible given a specific context, though personally I would use the past simple and include an explicit time reference in your answer, e.g.: "But I sent it to you on Wednesday".

Best wishes,

The LearnEnglish Team