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


Hello Garry301

Both are possible, but if I had to choose one, I'd say 'had met'.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for the answer. but if situation is, 'It was the first time they had met, in the garden'. is it right?

Hello again Garry301

Saying 'in the garden' doesn't change anything. As before, I would suggest using 'had met', but 'met' is not wrong.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

I would like to know which of the following sentences is grammattically correct. Can we use "since" in simple past tense as in the first sentence. Enlighten me on this.

1.He wanted to be an actor ever since he was a teenager.

2.He has wanted to be an actor ever since he was a teenager.

Thank you.

Hello again Aniyanmon

Does he still want to be an actor now, i.e. at the time you say this sentence? If so, only 2 is correct.

I'd suggest avoiding the past simple in the main clause of a sentence that has a 'since' clause, as it's usually not correct. If you were speaking about a person who no longer wants to be an actor, but did want to be one at one point in his life, then I'd suggest something like 'He wanted to be an actor from his teenage years until he finished university' (for example).

You might be interested in reading through the 'Since' page in the Cambridge Dictionary's Grammar section.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

I would like to ask one question to you. "I have been ill for some time now". Does it mean that "I have not been ill for some days now". My doubt is whether "some time" and "some days" have the same meaning. Enlighten me on this.

Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

'some time' is quite a vague expression -- it could mean for a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even longer. The context, including the person who says it, would in theory help you understand how long.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot sir.

Dear Sir

May i ask you to correct if i am wrong. From my opinion, the "perfect" tense essentially would deliver the meaning of unfinished state, or in a certain unfinished period. Based on different context, can I express as followings

Case 1:
I used to enjoy apple, but gradually did not like it after some years(not certain), so eventually, i do not like it now.

Express: I ate apples, which i had enjoyed since i was a child, and vegetables from my garden.

Case 2
Context: Apple is my favorite fruit always.

1. I ate apples, which I have enjoyed since I was a child, and vegetables from my garden.

Or even use the simple present tense to express "Apple is my favorite food" as a habit

2. I ate apples, which I enjoy since i was a child, and vegetables from my garden.

Thx in advanced for your comment

Hello Zhao

I'd suggest you take a look at our Perfect aspect page, where the meaning of the perfect aspect in general is explained and there are detailed explanations of both the present perfect and past perfect.

Your first two sentences are grammatically correct, but in the third one it's not correct to say 'enjoy' (in the present simple tense) with the time expression 'since'.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team