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


Hello Aniyanmon

I hope you don't mind me answering for Peter. In this case, it would not be correct to say 'I have joined the department in 2003' because the action of joining the department happened in the past and only in the past. 'join' refers only to the first moment that you become part of a group and isn't used afterwards to refer to being a part of it.

Does that make sense?

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for help sir

Dear sir,

Kindly advise me to write the following
matter grammatically :

"Certified that Shi.Albert had attended his duty from 01/01/2019 to 28/02/2019 except holidays.

This certificate is issued to be produced before the District Medical Officer of Health, Idukki"

Sir, is the usage of " had" in the above sentence is right

Hello Aniyanmon,

I think the past simple is required here rather than the past perfect:

Shi.Albert attended his duty



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you sir

Dear sir,
Today ie on 01/03/2019 I read a news in a popular news paper. The news goes as follows :

"The total number of IPS officers in service was 111. Of this about 16 officers have retired since January 2018 - that was when the list was published ".

Sir, is the usage of " have " right in this context

Thanks in advance

Hello Aniyanmon

Yes, the present perfect is appropriate and correct in this context, i.e. a time period that began in the past (January 2018) and which includes the present moment.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir,
Kindly help me to write the following letter grammatically.

"As per order no.5/RCH dated 10/01/2019 Sri.Arun was transferred to Head office. As per order no.6/RCH dated 15/02/2019 I have been transferred to District hospital. I had joined duty on 19/02/2019. I have verified all the files there."

I would like to know whether use of " had " is correct in the above usage

Hello Aniyanmon,

I'm afraid we don't check texts or correct them. We have far too many users and are too small a team to offer such a service!


I'm not sure what you mean by I had joined duty on... but I imagine you are talking about beginning work there. In that case we would probably say

I took up my post there on...

However, it is hard to be sure without knowing the full situation.



The LearnEnglish Team


Thanks a lot for your valuable reply