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

Hi Team,

Once we have established that we are using the past perfect tense,
would it be grammatically correct, to avoid being repetitive, to follow it with the past simple tense, even though we are still talking about the same incident?

for example:

Tom recalled how Sally had told him of the excitement she felt when she visited the zoo and saw the animals.

or does everything have to remain in the past perfect tense?

Tom recalled how Sally had told him of the excitement she had felt when she had visited the zoo and had seen the animals.

Thanks for your help,

Lexeus

Hello Lexeus,

The first sentence is fine. There is no need to express everything in the past perfect, and it makes the sentence very clunky.

The past perfect in your example only expresses one relationship: looking back on the act of telling from the perspective of the moment of recall. The rest is not directly linked. In other words, Tom recalls the telling, not the feeling, the visiting or the seeing.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Peter, that has made things a lot clearer for me.
Lexeus.

The exercises are perfect and useful but if it exists more exercise should be better for me...

PLEASE, change the example with the cat because it's very offensive. Who can put a cat in a washing machine? It's CRUELTY and I am sure it's a very painful and awful death, murder by the way. Something like that doesn't happen unintentionally. This kind of example is very bad and here is a website for education and not for learn types of kill someone. I am sorry about my message but I had studied here when I just read this and it's shocked me.

Hello govegan

We are currently revising the Intermediate grammar section and this page will be changing quite soon. It's difficult to speculate on the intentions of the people involved and although it's more likely than not that washing the cat was unintentional, I agree that the sentence shows poor taste and so I have changed it. Thanks very much for pointing it out to us and I'm sorry about that.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

Which is right?
The medium of instruction was (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. (If we use "was" - will that deny the current reality?)
Or
The The medium of instruction is (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

The first one is correct since the 'when' clause makes it clear that the sentence is only about the past. I would recommend taking out the comma, though.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Your firm and precise answers make me to think a lot. Thank you so much.
Regards,
kingson

Hello,
I am, again, a little bit confused about the use of the past tenses in this example:
"The film started before Thomas had arrived" If "start" is the acction that happens first and "arrived" is the acction that happens later, why not saying: "The film had started before Thomas arrived" because he arrived late and the film had already started.
Thank yoy in advance.

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