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

Hello,

Is it acceptable to say:

A: The weather is terrible today.
B: Yes, and it was raining all day yesterday too.
Or
B: Yes, and it rained all day yesterday too.

Thanks in advance.
I am looking forward to hearing from you.

Hello corflz

Both forms are possible, but the past simple form is probably better in more contexts than the past continuous form.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,
Can I say "My friend got married to a girl who had already been working here in this office" (If the girl is still working the same office currently)
Regards
kingson

Hello kingson

It would be strange to say it that way; 'was working' would be the best form for most situations.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Your explanation is extremely good. I still have some thoughts around it. If we say "was working", it is in the past. But in this situation the girl still working in the same office, currently. Is it still relevant to use past continuous(was working) ?
Thank you for your enlightenment.
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj

The verb 'got married' establishes a past time reference for the sentence, which is why 'was working' is better than 'is working'. If you changed the time reference, then 'is working' might be better, e.g. 'My friend is going to get married to a girl who is working in the office.'

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Thank you for your response. It is really enlightening. I still have a question. Hope, I am not deviating you too much.
Can we use a Present perfect in this context. Because the girl started her work in the office in the past and still working there. so " My friend got married to a girl, who has been working here in the office" - will this be correct? Can a simple past and the present perfect stays in a sentance like this? If not why?
Thank you.
Sorry for bothering you too much.
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

Your sentence with the present perfect continuous is grammatically correct, though please note that that tense implies something more than an action begun in the past and continuing in the present. For example, it could express a temporary situation or something that is developing.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,

Thank you very very muych again for your time and response.

Regards,
kingson

Wow! THant's great! Dear Kirk,

Thank you vey much for your time and response. It is actually helping me to be confident in my English.
Regards,

kingson

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