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 Kirk,

Thank you very very muych again for your time and response.

Regards,
kingson

Wow! THant's great! Dear Kirk,

Thank you vey much for your time and response. It is actually helping me to be confident in my English.
Regards,

kingson

Why a simple present tense in the direct speech, becomes a past tense in the indirect speech (eg. Direct - He said to me "She goes to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she went to shop) Whereas the past tense in direct speech becomes past perfect in the indirect speech? (eg. Direct - He said to me "She went to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she had gone to the shop) Is there any difference between these two indirect sentences or do they vary in their meaning?
Regards,

kingson

What is the difference between "Are you the one, who was going to come or do we need to expect another" or "Are you the one, who has been going to come or do we need to expect another"?

What is the difference between "Are you the one, who was going to come or do we need to expect another" or "Are you the one, who have been going to come or do we need to expect another"?

Why a simple present tense in the direct speech, becomes a past tense in the indirect speech (eg. Direct - He said to me "She goes to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she went to shop) Whereas the past tense in direct speech becomes past perfect in the indirect speech? (eg. Direct - He said to me "She went to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she had gone to the shop) Is there any difference?
Regards,

kingson

Dear Peter,
Can I say "My friend got married married to a girl who had already been working here" (If the girl is still working the office currently)
Regards
kingson

Hello Kirk. Thank you the explanation was extremely clear. But I am confused a little about the next statement:
I am wondering why the past perfect continuous is used here instead of the past continuous.
"-I knew a man who tried to cheat in an exam by writing all the answers on the sole of his shoes.
-Did he pass?
-No. It had been raining, so the ink had washed off. "
Is it possible to use both perfect and perfect continuous tenses here and why?
Sorry for disturbing you. Thanks in advance

Hello Englishlearner123

Yes, that sentence is perfectly natural and correct. In this case, the continuous form is describing the background situation (which is a common usage of the continuous aspect) and the simple form is clarifying the relative sequence of events.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

I have seen the following question and answer in a spoken English book. Kindly tell me whether the answer of the question is correct. As far as I know "should have" is used as an advice. For example "You should have gone there". It is used in past situations. But in the following answer "should have" is used in a future situation. How is it possible sir?. So can I say now "today evening I should have left this place" (suppose now the time is 10 'o clock in the morning).

Que:Will you have passed tenth class examination by the next year?

Ans:Yes, I should have passed it by that time.

Thank you.

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