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.

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

a lot thanku sir :) :) :)

earlier RBI had infused 50000 crore into the economy.

is this right to say?

Hello shubhamgupta,

As far as I know, 'crore' isn't used much outside of South Asia. As someone who's spent some time there, I recognised that it was a term used in Indian English, but I'm not sure most native speakers would. I think 'inject' or some other word might also be more common than 'infuse', but I'm not really sure.

Hope this helps you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

is its grammar is correct?
thank u sir for your time and assistance :)

Hi shubhamgupta,

In the appropriate context, yes, it is correct.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Learn English team,
If I want to report a question:
He asked: "When did you last cook meat?" can I say: *He asked when she last cooked meat* or should I change tenses: *He asked when she had last cooked meat* and if I should, do I need to change the word *last* for *the previous time* or smth like that?

Hello Goncharush,

Both forms are possible and I can't think of any context in which only one would be possible.

There is no need to change 'last'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

In your grammar section you wrote:
“I work in Italy” Reported speech: He told me that he works in Italy.
It isn’t always necessary to change the tense. If something is still true now – he still works in Italy – we can use the present simple in the reported sentence.
My question is whether it is possible to change the tense (he worked in Italy) and will the sentence still have the same meaning.

Hello Goncharush,

You are right in thinking that both 'works' and 'worked' are grammatically correct in this case. When the verb is in the present simple, it indicates that he still works there at the time of speaking. When the verb is in the past simple, the meaning is ambiguous: it could indicate the same as the present simple, or it could be speaking only about the past. Context should usually make the meaning clear, though it's also possible for the sentence to be unintentionally ambiguous.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi
I have learnt that when we are talking about how long something is happening we use the past perfect continues, is this true?

if it's true why the structure of this phrase?:
It had not rained for three months, so the land was very dry.
it shouldn't be: it hadn't been raining for three months,so the land was very dry.
please correct me if I have redacted wrong

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