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Past perfect

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 Sir,
Which is right to say?
Once you had it, then you would start using it.
or
Once you had it, then you will start using it.
Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,
kingson

Hello kingson

The second one is not correct. The first is correct, but a little strange -- I would say 'if' instead of 'once'. With 'once', I would want to say 'Once you have it, you will start using it'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
You are exemplary in answering questions, as you have been.
A little clarification..............
If the occurrence is not likely to happen in the future (Once you had it), can we use that sentence? - "Once you had it, you would start using it"
(e.g. If you had it you would start using it - this is an unlikely event in the future)

Can we say it in the following form?
"Once you have had it you will start using it"
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hi kingson

The sentence 'Once you had it, you would start using it' isn't exactly wrong, it just sounds strange because we usually use 'once' when we're talking about something that we have some expectation of happening. For example, the father of a ten year old child who is tired of school might say, 'Once you finish school (or 'once you've finished'), you can get a job', or, if I were giving directions to my house, I could say 'Once you reach the traffic light, turn right'. It would be a little strange (though not wrong) to say 'if' here, because then we imply there is some kind of doubt that these things will come to pass. It is certainly possible that they won't, but we expect them to and so 'once' is more appropriate.

The opposite is true of your sentences. By using verb forms typical of a second conditional structure ('once you had it, you would ...'), you are indicating that you don't think it's likely to happen. But on the other hand, you use 'once' instead of 'if', and so it sounds strange or perhaps even confusing.

When you change 'you would use it' to 'you will use it', then using 'once' sounds better since both forms indicate you expect the action in some way. If I said 'once you have had it' instead of 'once you have it', I would add some mention of time (e.g. 'once you have had it for awhile' or something similar), but strictly speaking it's not necessary.

Hope this helps.

Best wishes

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,
Which one of the following is correct?
Please remember "We said yesterday that we have to do cooking this afternoon, today".
or
Please remember "We said yesterday that we had to do cooking this afternoon, today".

Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

You might hear the first, but the second one is better.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Just a clarification. You said second is better. so the first one is also good, isn't it?
The second one is better(had to do cooking), because it refers to the past (we said yesterday), doesn't it?

Thank you again, for your service.
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

The use of verb tenses in the second one would be accepted by anyone (well, I can't speak for everyone, but as far as I know).

Even though people often don't change the tense in the reported part of the sentence when the present or future at that time are still the speaker's present or future now -- and so the first sentence is correct in this light -- some people (or teachers) still might mark the first as incorrect. That's why I say the second one is better.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,

It is a very professional answer. Thank you so much. As I said before, I am gaining command over the English language.
Regards,
kingson

dear sir ,

I'm very confused So, I would like to explain the difference between the past perfect and past simple in this example :

James had cooked breakfast when we got up.
James cooked breakfast when we got up.

why in 1st sentence do we use past perfect and in 2nd only past simple ? Is it depend on the order of actions only ?

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