Past perfect

Level: intermediate

The past perfect is made from the verb had and the past participle of a verb:

I had finished the work.
She had gone.

The past perfect continuous is made from had been and the -ing form of a verb:

had been working there for a year.
They had been painting the bedroom.

The past perfect is used in the same way as the present perfect, but it refers to a time in the past, not the present. We use the past perfect:

  • for something that started in the past and continued up to a given time in the past:

When George died, he and Anne had been married for nearly fifty years.
She didn't want to move. She had lived in Liverpool all her life.

For this use, we often use the past perfect continuous:

She didn't want to move. She had been living in Liverpool all her life.
Everything was wet. It had been raining for hours.

  • for something that happened several times before a point in the past and continued after that point:

He was a wonderful guitarist. He had been playing ever since he was a teenager.
He had written three books and he was working on another one.

  • when we are reporting our experience up to a point in the past:

My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I had ever had.
I was pleased to meet George. I hadn’t met him before, even though I had met his wife several times.

  • for something that happened in the past and is important at a later time in the past

I couldn't get into the house. I had lost my keys.
Teresa wasn't at home. She had gone shopping.

We often use expressions with for and since with the past perfect:

I was sorry when the factory closed. I had worked there for ten years
I had been watching that programme every week since it started, but I missed the last episode.
 

We do not normally use the past perfect continuous with stative verbs. We use the past perfect simple instead:

Up until that moment, I'd never believed (NOT been believing) in astrology.

Past perfect

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Past perfect and past simple

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Past perfect and hypotheses

We can also use the past perfect to make hypotheses about the past (when we imagine something). See these pages:

Average
Average: 4 (91 votes)

Hello Mat0,

I'm afraid I'm not completely sure I understand your question. What you say about the difference between the two sentences about Sophie is right -- the past perfect continuous form suggests that the sleeping problems have occurred on more than one night, whereas the second clearly expresses the idea of just one night.

What did you mean by 'didn't do' or 'hadn't done' as responses?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk,

Thank you for replying.

I realise my question is not completely clear, apologies for that.

If the question was "Why was Sophie tired?" then the response could be either of my two examples, is that right? It would just depend on if it happened more than once or just the one time that she had sleeping problems. The past perfect continuous would be used if the action was recent to the time of speaking too, correct?

The "do" or "done" is related to the action of sleeping. "She hadn't slept" or "she didn't sleep".

Many thanks,
Mat.

Hello Mat,

Thanks for clarifying your question. Yes, you have a good understanding of when to use which verb tense, though I would make one small adjustment: the past perfect continuous doesn't necessarily refer to a time that is recent in relation to the time of speaking, but rather recent in relation to the time of the other action (in this case, 'Sophie was tired').

For example, this sentence could be about events that occurred several years ago; 'hadn't been sleeping' then refers to Sophie's tiredness at that time several years ago, not to now.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Can you please explain for me this:
He had written three books and he was working on another one.
Why don't we use "he worked" instead of "he was working"? I just don't understand why we use "was working", what is the meaning in this sentence and can you tell me the difference when we use the past simple instead.
Thank you

Hello thg,

I'm afraid it's impossible to explain this properly without knowing the situation it's used in. It's certainly possible to use 'worked' here, but, for example, if the sentence is describing the writer's life situation at that time, then the continuous form is the best form since it expresses the idea of a period of time in progress.

I hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhom on Fri, 06/08/2021 - 04:30

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Hello, Sir! Could you tell me what the difference between the two sentences is? 1. Where had she been when you called her? 2. Where had she gone when you called her? If I am asked the question with the past perfect, should I answer with the past perfect or past simple? For example: A: How had you met your wife when you fell in love with her? B: I helped / had helped her when she fell off her bike. Thank you in advance, sir. Best Wishes!

Hello Sokhom,

The verb 'go' has two past participles: been and gone. The difference is as follows:

She's been to the shop. [she went there and returned]

She's gone to the shop. [she's not here as she is still in the shop]

The difference is the same for bother present and past perfect. Thus, the difference between the two sentences is as follows:

1.You are asking about something in her past, such as her experience of travelling.

2. You are asking about her location at the time of the phone call because presumably she was not there when you called (she had gone out).

 

Which verb form you use in the reply to a question is really context-dependent so it's not possible to give you a general rule. Note that we only use the past perfect when there is a clear connection - often a causal connection - between two past events. In your example I don't see any connection - they are simply two events. You might use the past perfect if the connection is clearer:

How long had you known Susie before you fell in love with her?

I'd known her for six years as a friend before I fell for her!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 25/05/2021 - 03:11

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Hello. Which tense or both are correct in the following sentence ? Why? I'm confused! - (Did you wait - Had you waited) until the car had been checked before you returned home? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

In most cases the past simple form is the best one here. The car was checked before you returned home, or perhaps while you were waiting and then you returned home. 

In a very specific context, it could be possible to use the past perfect form, but it would be referring to some other past event that the context would explain. I'd need more information to make sense of it in that case.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ayn on Thu, 26/11/2020 - 12:40

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Hello! Which one is correct? A)When I saw him, he was hungry. He hadn't eaten anything all day. B)When I saw him, he was hungry. He hadn't been eating anything all day. I thought that B is correct, because all day makes the meaning of contunity in the sentence, but the answer is A. I am confused, can you help please?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 28/11/2020 - 07:56

In reply to by Ayn

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Hello Ayn,

Neither option is wrong, grammatically speaking, but I think A is better. This is because we are interested in the result of the lack of eating (i.e. being hungry), not the ongoing process of not eating.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks. But we can also use the past perfect continuous to focus on the result of the action, can't we? (That's why I chose B.)
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Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 30/11/2020 - 07:34

In reply to by Ayn

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Hello again Ayn,

As I said, both sentences are possible. However, when we focus on the result of an action (as opposed to the consequences of the activity) the simple form is more likely. Compare:

She had read the book. [she can tell you how it ends]

She had been reading the book. [her eyes were tired]

You can see 'not eating/being hungry' in either way, of course, but I think the simple form is the best and most natural-sounding option.

 

I wrote an answer to a similar question a little earlier on another page. You may find it helpful:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-intermediate/present-perfect-simple-and-continuous#comment-161833

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by TatianaZ on Tue, 24/11/2020 - 21:08

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Hello! I have a question about using the Past Perfect tense in the following sentences. " I kept stopping to wait for him to catch up. Then when we had arrived at school, he would push my bike home again." Why does the author use "had arrived" here? Thank you

Hello TatianaZ,

Here the past perfect shows a clear sequence of actions, i.e. that he pushed my bike home after we arrived at school. But in this and many cases, the past perfect is not completely necessary; you could say 'arrived' and it would mean the same thing.

Does that make sense?

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MPhayTp on Mon, 26/10/2020 - 10:29

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Dear Team, Thank You I've learned all the tenses. And I've mastered but I still have to go a little more to be a pro. But I have confusion about this phrase. #Last night, In my dream, I was arrested because I had robbed a shop and I was gone to jail. Then I woke up with full of sweat. After 5 mins, I realised that it all was just a dream. Does it correct Grammarly?

Submitted by MPhayTp on Mon, 26/10/2020 - 08:45

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Dear Team, It (hadn't been) raining all summer. So the grass was completely dead. When I opened the curtains the sun was shining and the ground was white. It (had been) snowing during the night. I've learned that Past.P. Continuous shows about reasons. In these two sentences, Should I use Past Perfect or Past Perfect Continuous?

Hello DaniWeebKage,

Both the simple and the progressive are possible here. Both describe a past event which had an effect on a later past situation.

The simple form emphasises the action as a whole, while the progressive form emphasises the process. That can mean different things in different contexts. For example, the simple form may suggest that the action is completed, or at least the speaker is not considering that it may continue. The progressive may indicate that the action is incomplete, or at least that the speaker is aware that it may continue.

 

The differences are nuances rather than clear distinctions.

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You, Sir But I still have confusion about those two. 1) Her eyes looked watery and red. I thought she had been crying. (Does it mean she was crying at the moment of suggesting her appearance?) So In that case, I can't use the Past Perfect because she was still crying at that moment. Am I correct? 2) Have you been smoking? I smell of smoke. Have you smoked? I smell of smoke. Which should I use? And Why? 3) I am tired. I've been working. (Does it emphasize the action of working is continue? I am tired. I've worked( Does it mean the action is finished and I am feeling tired because of it? Thank You, Sir, Hope you answer all my questions. Have a great day!

Hello again DaniWeebKage,

'She had been crying' tells us that the speaker could see the evidence of her crying, but it does not tell us whether or not she had finished crying. The past perfect works in the same way as the present perfect in that sense. If I say 'She has been crying' then it does not tell you if she is still crying or not, but only that the evidence of her crying is still visible.

 

The correct form for your second question is 'Have you been smoking?' as the question is about the activity (smoking) rather than the result/achievement (how many cigarettes).

 

The third example works in the same way. If you want to talk about your achievements then the simple form is appropriate: 'I've worked on three projects today'. However, if you want to talk about the activity and its effects then the continuous form should be used: 'I'm tired because I've been working (all day).'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You , Sir I've read a article about a narration. The past perfect is used when we have two past references (then/before then). Then Shouldn't we say She had been to this house before. It had been cold, that time, when they'd played tennis in the courtyard. Now, it seemed different.(As we focus on it seemed different) Instead of She had been to this house before. It was cold, that time, when they played tennis in the courtyard. Now, it seemed different? Could you plz explain about this in detail?

Hello DaniWeebKage,

As you say, the past perfect requires two past time references. However, there must be a connection between the two past times/actions. This could be because one caused the other, or because one action changed or influenced a later action. Often the choice is up to the speaker and depends on how they see the two actions: as a simple sequence, in which case past simple + past simple is used, or as two related events, in which case past perfect + past simple may be preferred.

 

Both of your examples are fine. The version with the past perfect seems more likely to me as it helps to draw a connection between the two events/states - not a causal connection, of course, but a connection in terms of change which is relevant and important to our narrator.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You Very Much, Sir Peter, I want to ask my last questions and this will clarify all my confusion about tenses. (I can now use tenses correctly. Thanks to this website) 1) As you said when we want to talk about activity and it affects you, we use the Present Continuous. 1)Then, Can't I use " I'm tired because I've worked too much", " I feel dizzy because I've eaten too much"? 2) What important is up to the speaker which he wants to tell us like he completed or he wants to tell his activity. Right? 3) Can I use the Present Perfect with "The previous day", " the last (night/day)"? Does the same go with Past Perfect? 4) She is not at work. She has gone to her native town. It can tell us " she has gone very recently" or " she has gone from some time in the distant past up to now? Thank You. Hope you answer all my questions. Have a beautiful day!!!

Hello again DaniWeebKage,

The choice of simple or continuous is often one of emphasis. In other words, often both are possible/correct.

In (1), both simple and continuous could be used. The simple form would suggest that the speaker has finished working/eating.

(2) The most important information in each sentence remains how the speaker feels at the moment.

(3) No. We do not use the present perfect when there is a finished time reference.

(4) The sentence does not tell us when the person left. It could be recently or long ago. We know only that she is no longer here. Of course, the context may provide additional information.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 16/09/2020 - 22:31

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Hello. Could you please help me with the following sentence? Which one is correct or better than the other? Why? - He didn't come to school because he had been ill. - He didn't come to school because he was ill. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both sentences are grammatically possible.

The first (with had been) implies that the person was sick before school. It does not tell us whether or not the person was still sick when it was time to go to school. They may have been healthy by that point (but still weak or worried about making other people sick, for example).

The second sentence tells us that the person was sick when they were supposed to go to school

Neither sentence tells us anything about the present.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by OlaIELTS on Tue, 15/09/2020 - 22:10

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This tip is helpful. Thanks.

Submitted by Ankit Shrestha on Fri, 03/07/2020 - 11:28

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Why is it not - She didn't move. She lived in Liverpool all her life. Please reply.

Hello Anit Shrestha,

Both the past perfect (had lived) and the past simple (lived) are possible in this sentence.

However, if we use the past simple then we are describing two events which form a sequence and the reader or listener would understand that first she chose not to move and as a result spent her whole life in Liverpool.

If we use the past perfect then it is clear that the decision to not move comes after the act of living in the city. In other words we understand that she decided not to move because all her life up to that point had been in Liverpool, so she had an attachment to the city.

 

In other words, past simple + past simple here gives us two actions in sequence.

Past simple + past perfect makes it clear that the second action in the sentence happened before the first.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

-1

I was tired because I hadn't slept or didn't sleep.

I was exhausted because i did not sleep or had not slept a day before

I cried because my dad slapped or had slapped me.

I went to restaurant yesterday but could not order anything because I left or had left my wallet at home.

I woke up late because I forgot or had forgotten to set the alarm.

I woke up late and realized I overslept or had overslept.

What's the more correct and natural choice in every sentence?

Hi ROMY learner,

All these options are acceptable. From a grammatical point of view, the past perfect options are preferable. The past perfect's main meaning is that the past event occurred earlier than another past time or past event. If these were questions in a grammar test, I imagine that the past perfect would be considered the correct answer here. However, in real life usage, people often simplify the past perfect to the past simple, especially when the time relationship between the actions is already obvious from the context, or is specified by other words (e.g. "because" shows a cause, which logically must occur earlier than the result). 

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

HI,
Thanks for this answer but my doubts still remain about past perfect and past simple, and I have some questions this reply could be longer as I don't want to ask a lot of questions and I hope I get all answers.
1st question with word "Because" as you answered but I am still confused in the sentences like these.....
I was exhausted because I did not sleep a day before or had not slept a day before. what's the actual difference here? don't we use past simple when it's a specific time or day or with word "before"? what's more correct here and what's the difference?
I was hungry because I didn't eat or hadn't eaten. what's the difference here and are both correct?
I went to theatre yesterday but couldn't record a video because I left or had left my phone at home?
I was tired because I didn't sleep or hadn't slept (what's the difference here with no time used which one is more correct?
2nd question is with word "Realized" in sentence like these....
I woke up late and realized I overslept or had overslept. what's correct?
I came to home and realized someone stole or had stolen my wallet.
I bought clothes yesterday and while paying bill I realized I lost or had lost my wallet . same with the word found out. I woke up late and found out I overslept or had overslept?
3rd question I am also confused with the word before and until in past tenses such as..
I didn't see or hadn't seen this movie before you told me. what's the difference here there must be some difference?
I didn't hear or hadn't heard of this film before you told me about it.
I didn't hear or hadn't about this film until I watched it on tv?
I hadn't Heard
or didn't hear about this film 2 days ago .
My friend asked me to watch the film but i did not watch because I saw or had seen it 2 hours ago/before.
these are my all doubts and i hope you will answer me and clear it up I have been having hard time figuring out the difference between past simple or perfect in these sentences and with these 4,5 words, it would be really helpful if you could answer

Hello again ROMY learner,

Please note that while we try to help as much as we can it's not possible for us to provide answers to long lists of questions as we have many thousands of users on the site and are only a small team providing a free service. To fully answer this I'd need to not only indicate the correct form but also provide an explanation of what the context would be and how different contexts might change the choice of form, and that kind of long explanation is beyond what we can do in the comments here. This is really a question to sit down and discuss with your teacher.

I'll comment on two of the sentences to give you an idea of what I mean:

I cried because my dad slapped or had slapped me.

Both forms are possible here. If the crying immediately follows the slap (i.e. is a result of the pain or shock of the blow) then 'cried' is the best choice. If, on the other hand, the crying is later on and is the result of an emotional reaction to the trauma or grief of being slapped by someone who you expect to support you and love you, then 'had slapped' is better. As you can see, the choice is complex and dependent on how the speaker sees the situation and interprets it.

I woke up late and realized I overslept or had overslept.

Here, only the past perfect (had overslept) is possible. It's clear that the oversleeping precedes waking up and realising and that it leads to the realisation - there is a direct causal line here. The past simple ('overslept') would suggest a general statement - that oversleeping is a habit and I have only just realised I do it.

 

As you can see, perfect aspects are very much context-dependent rather than being expressions of black-and-white rules.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hey sir,
ok I understand but can you tell me about these sentences?
I was tired because I didn't sleep or Hadn't slept? what's the difference here and what should I use ?

Hello again ROMY learner,

If the sentence describes a single occasion (yesterday, last week etc) then we would use 'hadn't slept' here as the lack of sleeping is the direct cause of the tiredness. On the other hand if the sentence describes a state in the past (for many years, during my time working as a police officer etc) then the past simple (didn't sleep) would be used. Once again, context is key.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

the context is I want to give information the cause of me being tired that day
so i was tired and i want to give information why i was tired so what should i use there?

Hello again ROMY learner,

The answer is in the first line of the previous reply:

If the sentence describes a single occasion (yesterday, last week etc) then we would use 'hadn't slept' here as the lack of sleeping is the direct cause of the tiredness.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

what if i use before like:
he was tired because he didnt sleep or hadnt sleep a night before? and
I wasn't hungry because i ate or had eaten 2 hours before?
whats the difference here can i use past simple here or not?

Hello again ROMY learner,

Before makes the connection explicit - it tells the reader/listener that the earlier action has an effect on the later one, so the past perfect is more likely. You may find examples like this where the past simple is used but the past perfect is much more likely in my view.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by angeeeeeeel on Sun, 28/06/2020 - 12:04

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Hello, when do we use "I had never had" ?

Hello angeeeeeeel,

There are so many situations in which 'I had never had' could be used that I can't possibly describe them all, but I'll give you one example sentence:

'I had never had butter in my tea before I went to Tibet.'

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

What to use with word "Recently" in past?
I didn't buy that mobile because my brother recently gifted me or had recently gifted me?
What to use with word Recently if both Acton's is in past? Past simple or perfect?

Hello ROMY learner,

There's no fixed connection with a particular verb form and 'recently'. It entirely depends on the context. If the earlier action provides a relevant result (as in your example), then the a perfect form (here, past perfect) would be normal with or without the adverb 'recently'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you,
I had these doubt between past continuous and past perfect continuous

1a) He went through her phone and found out she'd been lying to him all the time.

1b) He went through her phone and found out she was lying to him all the time.

2a) My friend asked me to watch that film and made me realize what I'd been missing.

2b) My friend asked me to watch that film and made me realize what I was missing.

What's the difference here and what's more correct and natural?

Hi ROMY learner,

Using the past perfect (she'd been lying / what I'd been missing) indicates that the action occurred before or until the past simple action. It shows the actions as a time sequence (i.e. the past perfect action occurred first, and the past simple action second).

The past continuous actions (she was lying / what I was missing) may continue until or even after the time of the past simple action. For example, in 2a it seems that "missing" refers to the time before or until watching the film. That meaning is also possible for 2b, but 2b could also mean that the speaker was still missing something even after watching the film (i.e., the "missing" was not necessarily over, unlike in 2a). Depending on the situation, this difference may be unimportant, though, and both structures could be possible.

I hope that helps to understand it.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

so, if I say, "She had been" it means when i found out she had stopped lying and if I use "She was" it means when i found out she was still lying to me it's kind of confused that's one more example to clear this out.
1)I couldn't go to school because he was/had been working all night.

Hi ROMY learner,

That's right about "She had been lying". But as I mentioned in my previous comment, the past continuous action may continue (1) until the past simple action, or (2) after it. The past continuous does not specify when the action finished (unlike the past perfect, which shows that the action occurred before or until another past action or time).

This example is similar. If you say "he had been working all night", it means at the time of going to school (presumably in the morning), he was no longer working. So, the reason for not going to school was that (presumably) he was too tired after working to take the speaker to school.

If you say "he was working all night", it could mean:

  1. The same as above (i.e. had already finished work but he was too tired to take the speaker to school.)
  2. His work time was the same as the time of going to school, so he could not take the speaker there. For example, the speaker needs to go to school during the night, for some reason, but he is working at that time.

If I may suggest, it may help to know that grammatical structures sometimes have multiple meanings rather than just one, and also that when searching for differences in meaning between two different structures, it's important to consider that some of their meanings can be the same. In real life language usage, speakers and listeners don't only use their grammatical knowledge but also their general knowledge of what is logical in this situation in order to understand meanings (e.g. whether the speaker intends meaning 1 or 2 above). However, when analysing individual sentences, we have no context here to help us understand, so it's not always easy or possible to determine exact meanings. It might be useful for you to look for examples of these structures in longer texts, as these may have clearer meanings.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lexeus on Sat, 27/06/2020 - 20:00

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Starting at Ban Pong and crossing the bridge on the river Kwai in Kanchanaburi, the railway line had once snaked its way through two hundred and fifty miles of dense jungle to the town of Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Hi Team Could you help me with the sentence that I’ve posted? I have read that the past perfect tense goes with the simple past tense. Is that always the case? I think my sentence uses the past perfect (had once snaked) with a participle clause (or phrase, I’m not sure which). Firstly, is it a grammatically correct sentence? Secondly, is it grammatically acceptable to split ‘had snaked’ with ‘once’? (As in ‘had once snaked’) Thank you so much for your help. Lexeus

Hello Lexeus,

It's perfectly fine to put an adverb (once) between the auxilliary verb (had) and the past participle (snaked).

As far as the use of the past perfect in your example goes, it requires a past time reference point, but this may be included in the broader context in which the sentence appears. The use of the past perfect implies that the situation later (but still in the past) changed.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Dukul on Sat, 23/05/2020 - 13:28

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What is the difference in meaning between these following sentences: 1. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I had ever had. 2. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I ever had. 3. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I have ever had.