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 Kirk,

Thank you for your response.

l’m sorry for making you think that l was asking someone to do my homework. What I’d like to say is that l’m not a student and I don’t have to do any homework. I used to do all of my homework myself when I was a student. I’m just interested in English and want to learn more about it. Actually, the question tags which I’d like someone to check for me were almost done on my own. (Only 2 of them which I really don’t know how to do were from my colleague.)

Thank you for telling me about the “Question Tags” page which I’ve read already. Still, there are some statements that I’ve got no idea on what tags should be used. Before knowing about the British Council’s Iearning English website, I had checked out the relevant topic in “English Grammar in Use” written by Raymond Murphy, my nephew’s textbook as well as other learning English websites, no example sentences which are similar to some of those I was questioning about.

I’ll post those questions which I’m unsure and I don’t know on the relevant page again. l really hope that someone will give me a helping hand to solve my problems which has existed in my mind for quite a long time.

Thank you!

Best rgds,

Hello bnpl,

I think a good place to post your question is this page. That is a page about questions, though not question tags specifically.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello bnpl,

I understand, and I hope you understand why we might think that what you posted was a homework task. We have to be careful!

It's not really possible for us to go through such a long list of examples and explain each one. Please remember that our main job is to maintain the site and add new material; helping users with questions they have is something we do when we have time, and writing long explanations of multiple examples simply isn't feasible for us.

Please choose two or three examples and we'll be happy to comment on them for you. Please also post them in the comments section on the question tags page, so that other users who are learning about question tags will be able to see your question and our answer and learn from it.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter,

Thank you for letting me know something about the job of The LearnEnglish Team. I thought some teachers were there to deal with the problems about English of English learners. Actually, the fact is not what I supposed.

Anyway, I’d like thank the LearnEnglish Team members for the time contributed to answering my questions about English.

By the way, the comments section on the “Question Tags” page cannot be found. Now that I’ve no idea where to post the relevant questions. Would you please get back to me what I should do at your earliest convenience?

Thank you for your kind attention.


Hi, everyone! I’m a new member here. I’ve wanted to improve my English. Hope that I can get help from anyone of you. Thanks a lot in advance.

Hi! I have a question, hope you can help me.
If I say "these are the pictures I had taken during my year in Canada" for example, is this correct? Why?
I mean, this phrase should not have two verbs (one as Past Perfect and one as Simple Past) to be correct?
I saw this phrase at some webpage and now I'm wondering if it's right.


Hi gabiirosa,

I'm afraid this depends on the context. It could be an example of 'causative have' - you 'had the pictures taken' by someone else, who you paid to do it. It could be part of a broader context in which the year in Canada is an earlier past time, referenced in that context. Or it could be a mistake and the past simple may be a better alternative. It really is not possible to say for sure from just the sentence in isolation.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Can someone clarify this
I read an article and I have a doubt about its grammar because the title is (did you know)
Why it can be do you know because it's present tense (why past tense is used)
If it's correct can I use did you know in every conversation/writing
If it's wrong, please clarify do you know vs did you know

Hello Rafael darn,

We use 'did you know' to ask about the past, and 'do you know' to ask about the present.

Did you know John when you were a student? [The speaker knows that I know John now; he is asking about the past]

Do you know John? [The speaker is asking about the present - about now]

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hey guys I want to ask a question about fluency in English
My friend is pretty darn good at English and he really is fluent whenever he has a coversation with people(not infront of crowd just like casual conversation with anyone). everyone likes him because he can converse in English well even my English teachers always praise him how good he speaks English (almost like the native level) but I don't think he's fluent enough because everytime he gives a speech spontaneously in front of crowd his English is really terrible especially his grammar (happens during giving a speech/talk only). Sometimes I am doubting him because during speech/talk time only I can see his English is a disaster really terrible disorganized words Then I ask him the reason he can't speak English very well during speech in front of unknown people but can speak very well with anyone ( He hardly makes a mistake) he encounters. Then he says he's nervous in front of a lot of people and it makes his brain mentally blank, he doesn't know what to say like completely blank no ideas to talk spontaneously. Guys out there is he weird because in my opinion if one is really fluent in English surely can speak in front crowd. If Nervous is the problem how can I help him because he is my friend.