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 (174 votes)

Submitted by Radioheady on Tue, 28/05/2024 - 08:02

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Hello sir. I wonder if the employment of past perfect "had planned" is correct in the following sentence: "I am writing to extend my sincerest apologies for not being able to participate in the English singing competition as we had planned."

Given the past perfect is used to describe an action that was completed before another action in the past and I don't see another action in the past, does it mean that "have planned" make more sense, indicating the relevance of the planning to the current situation?

Thanks for your time.

Hello Radioheady,

In this situation you do have two events in the past even if one is not specifically stated. First there was the plan to participate (earlier past action) and then the decision to not participate (later past action). This is the reason for the use of the past perfect.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by HLH on Wed, 31/01/2024 - 23:08

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Hi Jonathan
1 - Is this correct?
- When we arrived at the station the train left before ( Mean The train left the station first)
- we arrived at the station the train left before ( Mean The train left the station first )
- Emma didn't come to the cinema because she saw the film before ( Mean Emma saw the film first )

2 - Does the past simple same meaning the past perfect with (because , After , until)
The party couldn't start until Kate had arrived
OR
The party couldn't start until Kate arrived

After the exams had finished they had a party.
OR
After the exams finished they had a party.

Emma didn't come to the cinema because she'd seen the film
OR
Emma didn't come to the cinema because she saw the film

3 - Can I use any time reference and I mean I did before this time like (yesterday / last week / this week / this summer / by 2023 / by 2024 )

example
- She'd published her first poem yesterday OR this week OR last week ( I mean before yesterday OR this week OR last week )
- She'd published her first poem by 2024 OR by 2023 ( I mean before by 2024 OR by 2023)
- They hadn't had a foreign holiday until this summer.

Hi HLH,

1.

  • When we arrived at the station the train left before - no, the meaning is unclear. It needs the past perfect "had (already) left" to show that it happened first. Otherwise, it's unclear because "when" may be understood as meaning they happened at the same time (instead of one first, then the other one). Also, you can't use "before" together with "when". Use "already" instead.
  • we arrived at the station the train left before - no, it needs a conjunction to join the two clauses. See also the comments above.
  • Emma didn't come to the cinema because she saw the film before - yes! You can also use the past perfect "had seen" here.

2. Yes!

3. Only if you use it with "by".

Hope that helps!

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by aisykl on Fri, 29/12/2023 - 06:05

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Hi, are these sentences correct?
1. Today after breakfast, we went for a walk on the Island and explored areas we had not seen yesterday.
- Can we use 'yesterday' in Past Perfect?

2. She has not been seen since yesterday.
- I know we cannot use 'yesterday' in Present Perfect, but what sentence should we replace it with then?

Hello aisyki,

1) Yes, that's fine.

2) The present perfect is fine here. You cannot use present perfect with a fixed time (e.g. yesterday, last Thursday, 3.00) but you can use it with since + a fixed past time (e.g. since yesterday, since last Thursday, since 3.00). This is because since means 'from this time to the present' and so creates an open time frame.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Manu P Nair on Tue, 22/08/2023 - 06:17

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Hello,
John is happy as he had done well in English this year. Last year he had failed in English.

Is this correct?

Hello Manu P Nair,

There is no reason to use past perfect in the first sentence, so I would change it to '...as he did well in English this year' if the year is at an end, or '...as he has done well in English this year' if the year is still continuing. In the second sentence I also don't see why you would use the past perfect. You are describing a finished past situation and the past simple is perfectly sufficient: '...he failed English'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Steven Garschke on Fri, 18/08/2023 - 21:32

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Hi British Council.

I've seen 'yet' used with past perfect on a couple of occasions, but it doesn't sound right to me. Is this more of an American English usage, is it wrong or is it just me?

Hi Steven,

As a British English speaker I would say that it is unusual and often can sound quite awkward, but is not wrong and in some contexts can be OK, especially when the past time reference is introduced with 'when'. For example:

Einstein had not yet finished school when he discovered an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

 

You can find a good discussion of the topic in one of the answers on this page:

https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/264989/is-it-possible-to-use-yet-with-past-simple

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by dulakisaika on Sat, 29/04/2023 - 20:03

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Sorry for my slow understanding. From one of your examples you stated "When George died, he and Anne had been married for nearly fifty years" but according to the form of past perfect is had and past participle of the verb.

Hello dulakisaika,

'Married' looks like a past participle here, doesn't it, but it is actually an adjective in this sentence. Thus the past participle form is as described: had + past participle, where the past participle is 'been'.

You could replace 'married' with other adjectives: had been married, had been happy, had been worried, had been lonely, had been tired etc.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by khaledAl5 on Mon, 27/03/2023 - 22:21

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Hello everyone!
I have a question about “until and since”
I see here that you used this sentence”I had been watching that programme every week since it started” and here we have two actions, the one that happened before is started then had been watching! Right? So, how this happens? As I know, past perfect happens first, but here I see that simple past happens first! The programme started, then I started watching it!

Another question about “until” here’s an example “I didn’t say anything until she had finished talking”. As I see, the first thing happened that I didn’t say, then he finished.
And here “until” sounds like “before” so, can I use before in this kind of sentences? For example:
I didn’t say anything before she had finished talking.

Another example:

I had not studied English before I moved to New York.
I had not studied English until I moved to New York.
OR
I didn’t study English before I had moved to New York.
I didn’t study English until I had moved to New York.

Which of them are right?

So, why I use past perfect as this when using until and since?

Thank you in advance.

Hi khaledAl5,

The full example is: I had been watching that programme every week since it started, but I missed the last episode. The past perfect "had been watching" shows that the "watching" action was completed before "I missed the last episode" (not before "since it started", which is illogical, as you mentioned). The past perfect is not used for "since it started" because that is not the key connection between the actions. The key connection is between the actions in bold: these together make the larger meaning of the whole sentence. I should point out that the past perfect is not used simply to show that one action happened before another one. There also needs to be a meaningful connection between the past perfect and past simple actions, i.e. they make larger meaning together. Here, the larger meaning is that my watching habit was broken.

The usage of the past perfect with before/until is a different usage. We can use before/until + past perfect to show that an action was not done or was incomplete at the time of the past simple action. This is the meaning in your other examples, e.g. I didn’t say anything until she had finished talking (= at the time when I did not say anything, she had not yet finished talking; i.e. "talking" was incomplete, so I only spoke after she had finished talking). Yes, you can use "before" instead of "until" here.

About the New York sentences, they are all grammatical. The first two use the past perfect simply to show the time order of events. The second two use the past perfect with the "not done or incomplete at the time of the past simple action" meaning. But it is important to note that the sentences focus on different things. The first two sentences are focused on "I moved to New York", and that seems to be the main topic of the conversation. In comparison, the second two sentences are focused on "I didn't study English". The focus is usually shown by the past simple, and the past perfect provides some kind of background information for the past simple action. So, as you do your English practice, it is worth looking out for how the past perfect is used in longer texts (not just example sentences), because the meaning and reason for using it depends a lot on the context and the focus of not just sentences but whole paragraphs and conversations.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thank you so much for your explanation, and I appreciate your effort.

So, as you said, I just can use “until + past perfect” when the action in past simple is negative:

The party couldn't start until Kate had arrived.
Right?

Thank you again for your patience and your time.

Submitted by Alita051 on Fri, 17/03/2023 - 10:13

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Hello everyone, I'm new here so I hope this question hasn't already been asked. In the sentence "Lina was crying because she had been reading a sad book" why do I use both verbs (crying and reading) with ing form. The sentence is an example of the past perfect continuous tense, but I thought that one verb should use the past perfect continuous and the second in the past simple tense. What am I missing?
Thanks in advance

Hi Alita051,

Welcome! We hope you enjoy learning English here.

It's also correct to say Lina cried because she had been reading a sad book. Both the past continuous and past simple are fine. The choice between the past continuous (was crying) and past simple (cried) depends on whether the speaker wants to present this action as one with duration or not.

I don't know if this is just a single sentence by itself or it is part of a larger text, but the larger text may also give a reason for choosing the past continuous. For example:

  • The past continuous is often used to show actions in progress at a particular past moment, as a kind of background to it. For example: I entered the room and looked at Lina. Lina was crying because she had been reading a sad book. I passed her a tissue to dry her eyes ... 
  • The past simple may be used if the speaker wants to tell actions in sequence, e.g.: Lina cried because she had been reading a sad book. Then, she got up and put the book back on the shelf ...

This is a separate issue from the past perfect continuous.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by liliyaryaboshapko on Wed, 15/03/2023 - 12:19

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Hello,

Can we start a sentence with the Past Perfect? Like in this example:
"My family and I hadn’t traveled in a long time, so we planned to travel to Australia last summer. "

Helly liliyaryaboshapko,

Yes, you can. Normally the topic of traveling or last summer would already have been introduced in the conversation before saying a sentence with the past perfect like this, though it's also possible without that context. It depends very much on the situation, but it looks as if you've got the right intuition here.

Well done!

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

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Submitted by khaledAl5 on Fri, 10/03/2023 - 09:18

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Good morning,

I have a question about the linking word (when)

Let me show you the context:

“ I was watching TV in my room, and my brother was studying in his room. Afterwards, I finished watching and at the same time my brother finished his studying. Then our father entered the house and asked us “What did you do before I came?” ” Can I use here this expression:
>> When I had watched TV, my brother had studied.
Actually, I want to ask If I can use the same tense in the two clauses with (when). As I know (when) is a time expression, so, can I use it with (present perfect) to refer to a finished or unfinished action?!. In fact I asked many teachers all over the world about using (when) with other tenses, but everyone gave me something different. Some of them say you can, the others say you can’t!! So because you are a verified site that everyone can rely on, please I want to know exactly how to use (when) with the other tenses.

Thanks in advance best instructors.

Hi khaledAl5,

Yes, you can use the same tense in the two clauses with "when". For example:

  • When I watched TV, my brother studied. (watched = past simple; studied = past simple)

Note that your examples "had watched" and "had studied" use the past perfect: (not present perfect). The past perfect isn't right here because the past perfect shows an action that happened before another past action or time. But in this answer, the two actions (watched TV / studied) happened at the same time, not one before the other.

To use the past perfect, you could say something like "I'd watched TV by the time you came home, and my brother had studied." However, in the context of answering your father's question, it sounds a bit unnatural as an answer.

It also doesn't answer your father's question very directly. His question is: What did you do?. It's not wrong to say When I watched TV, my brother studied, but it is emphasising WHEN you did something, not WHAT you did. A more direct answer would be something like I watched TV and my brother studied (past simple).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thank you so much for your help and response. But the other thing I want to know is: Can I use present perfect with when in the two clauses? To mean that the two actions happend and finished or unfinished?

For example:
I have learnt English when I have lived in England. ( Now I don’t live there or still live there) so it’s ok to use this kind of sentences? And can I use “when” with all tenses?

Please excuse me for this question, and I am sorry for any inconvenience.

Hello khaledAI5,

I'm afraid the use of the present perfect in the sentence you ask about is not correct.

The answer to your question is in the Present perfect with time adverbials section of our Present perfect page. 'when' is used to refer to a finished past time and the present perfect is used to speak to an unfinished time, so the two are incompatible.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

 

Submitted by _Chris_ on Mon, 20/02/2023 - 00:44

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Hi, I was wondering if you could give me some feedback information on the following sentence and whether it's correct way of saying or is there any better way of forming it.

-"As we were driving to New York, we saw a car crash that had occurred a moment before."

I used Past Continuous tense for the background (longer) action, then Past Simple for the main action in this particular event (seeing a car crash), and then Past Perfect to emphasize that the car crash had occured before us seeing it.

Does that make any sense or did I get something wrong?

Thanks in advance!

Submitted by bloody_kary on Sun, 18/12/2022 - 11:52

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Hello!
Could you tell me please whether it is possible to use Past Perfect Continuous in the following interrogative sentence?
What had you been doing since you left school?
We talk about events that happened in the past and aren't relevant now.

Hello bloody_kary,

Yes, that is possible in certain contexts. For example, imagine we are in our 30s and we're talking about our lives in our 20s. You tell me how you left school at 22 and then start talking about taking a job at 24. I could ask about what happened in between with this question.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by margo_english on Thu, 17/11/2022 - 12:43

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Hello, could you please help me with the following⬇️

I can’t understand why the fist part of the sentences is in Past Simple, but the second is Past Perfect Simple

“However, Newton was sure that he WAS first and that Leibnitz HAD COPIED him.”

“In 50 BC the Senate ordered Caesar to return to Rome. By that time, Crassus WAS DEAD and Pompey HAD BECOME Caesar’s enemy.”

Does it have anything to do with the stative verb “be”? I could not find any information about NOT using stative verbs in Past Perfect Simple.

Could you please clarify it

Thanks,
Wish you all good

Hi margo_english,

These sentences use past simple, but past perfect would also work here too (Newton was sure that he had been first ... / By that time, Crassus had died ...).

People often simplify by using the past simple instead of the past perfect. This often happens when the time relationship of the events is already clarified by other parts of the sentence. For example, in sentence 2, the phrase "By that time" clearly places the action as happening earlier than the previous action/time. 

The other actions are probably put in the past perfect to avoid ambiguity of meaning. In sentence 1 "Leibnitz had copied him" clearly refers to the single occasion that is being described. On the other hand, if the person had written "Newton was sure that he was first and that Leibnitz copied him", it could be understood as a repeated or regular copying (since the past simple may also show a regular or repeated action, as well as a single action). In sentence 2, "Pompey had become ..." shows that the time of this action is before the first event (Caesar returning to Rome). If the person had written "By that time, Crassus was dead and Pompey became Caesar’s enemy", it could be understood as happening after the first event (Caesar returning to Rome), i.e. a sequential action. The phrase "By that time" is a bit distant, so it does not clearly place the action as an earlier one.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sammie on Wed, 28/09/2022 - 22:35

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Dear Sir,

With regards to the use of past perfect tense, can you advise which of the following sentences is correct?

1) After Jane had made sure she had signed the document, she left the office.

2) After Jane had made sure she signed the document, she left the office.

3) After Jane made sure she had signed the document, she left the office.

There are 3 actions in the sentence ie ‘made sure’, ‘sign’, ‘left’, hence I am confused which tense I should use for each of the 3 verbs. Thank you very much!

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 23/08/2022 - 18:48

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Hello. Could you please help me choose the correct choice in the following sentence? Why? I think with "already" we can't use "perfect continuous", right?
- By the time I got to the stadium, they (had already played - had already been playing) for ten minutes. Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

I would choose the second option - had already been playing - because the emphasis is on how long they had been playing, so the continuous form fits well.

It is fine to use "already" with the past perfect continuous. "Already" means "before the specified time", which in this case is the time I got to the stadium.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, again Jonathan. If we said the sentence with past perfect "had already played", would it be wrong?
Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

No. That would be fine too (although the continuous version would be preferred, I think).

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

1.I found out someone broke into my house and stole my stuff.
2. i found out someone had broken into my house and stolen my stuff.

(What's the difference here do they mean the same thing and what's natural?)

3.My phone was lagging then I Found out someone went through my phone.
4.My phone was lagging then I found out someone had gone through it.

(What's the difference here do they mean the same thing and what's more natural.)
Can i use Past simple in both example do they have the same meaning or there is difference

Hello Romy,

All four of these sentences are fine, though 4 is better than 3 because it suggests a relationship between sequence of events more than 3 does.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Yes But is there any difference between 3 and 4? What's more natural thing to say

In First two I was told past simple means both thing happened at same time but I Asked you and you said they are same I am really confused because I also think they both mean same but I am not sure If i used past simple would it be wrong? What's more good English

Hello Romy,

As I think we've explained, we're not able to continue giving advice about questions like this. This is not what we're here for. I'd suggest you find a teacher.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MohamedMosta on Sat, 30/07/2022 - 14:28

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Hello LearnEnglish Team.
the garden was wet.it had been raining.
that has no connection to the present and that means the garden is dry now .
right or not?

Hi AboWasel,

Yes, it has no connection to the present. So, it gives us no information about how the garden is now - it could be dry, or wet (if it has rained again since then, for example). We don't know!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by GrammarLover on Wed, 23/02/2022 - 00:26

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Hello LearnEnglish Team,

Could you please explain to me why we use the past perfect here?

"I had been watching that programme every week since it started, but I missed the last episode."

According to the grammar, Past perfect is used to talk about an action that hapens BEFORE another action in Past Simple. Therefore, the first action is the action in Past Perfect and the second action is in past simple. But in this sentence the first action is "start" and the second one is "watch", so why is "watch" in past perfect? Many thanks in advance.

Hello GrammarLover,

The second action is not 'it started' but rather 'I missed'. The phrase 'since it started' establishes a point in time in the past, and then there's the repeated activity of watching the programme every week since then, and then there's the action of missing the last episode.

Hope that clears it up for you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Yeah: as you said "it started" happens first and, after that, the action of "watching" happens. Therefore, if the action of watching happens after the action of start, how is it possible that "watching" is in Past Perfect and "start" in past simple and not the other way round? For example, if I say "I realised I had left my keys at home" --> I put "had left" in past perfect because it is the first action and I put "realised" in past simple because the action of realise happens after the action of leave. In our sentence, "start" happens first and, later, the action of "watch" happens.

Hello GrammarLover,

"I had been watching that programme every week since it started, but I missed the last episode."

The past perfect is emphasises that one action occurs before one other action. In this sentence, there are two other actions -- 'it started' and 'I missed' -- and so you have to choose which one the past perfect refers to.

The idea that I was watching a programme before it started is pretty unusual, but the idea that I was watching it before missing the last episode is not. This is why I assume the reference point is 'I missed the last episode' instead of 'it started'.

As you can see, the past perfect situates an action in relation to another reference point. That reference point can occur very close to the past perfect, but it doesn't have to. In fact, the reference point is often not even in the same sentence, but in another previous sentence. It's important to think about what makes sense; the grammar expresses meaning rather than determining it.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Ok, I get your point. The sentence I am worried about and would like to check (a student of mine wrote it) is the following:

"He was my best friend since we were 5 years old."

If it was in the present, the sentence would be "He has been my best friend since we were 5 years old", so I thought that if we move that sentence into the past (like in the story of my student), the sentence should be "He had been my best friend since we were 5 years old", but I don't know how to justify my choice because the starting point is 5 years old but in my sentence it sound as if the first action was to be friends... I am confused. What do you think the correct sentence for my student would be?

Hello GrammarLover,

Assuming that your student's story is about your student's past (but when he is older than five), 'He had been my best friend since we were five years old' is probably the most appropriate form, especially if the description continues. For example, if your student is now 25 and is writing about a time when he was 15, then 'He had been my best friend since we were five years old, but he was beginning to change and so we were growing apart' works well -- the past reference point is that moment in the past when they were growing apart and the previous state was 'we had been best friends since the age of five'.

Does that make sense? If the situation your student was writing about is very different, I can try to help you make sense of it if you let me know what it is.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

It is hard to explain it here in writing instead of having a whiteboard where I can draw a timeline... but I will try to explain what I have on my mind.

If the sentence was about the present: "He has been my friend since we were five", the FINISHING POINT is NOW and the STARTING POINT is "we were five" (that is to say: the action of being friends started at a specific point in the past (we were five) and continues until now.

If the sentence is talking about the past (yes, this is the case of my student's story. The story talks about the moment when the police came because he was missing. My student says that in the previous sentence, but I think that would be the finishing point. Then the story would be "It was the police. John was missing. John had been my best friend since we were five years old.". Therefore, in that story, the action of being friends started at the age of five and it continues until the moment when the police came. So the starting point is "we were five" and the finishing point is "the police came", right? And the action of be friends for many years happens before the police came, so the second action is in past simple (the police came) and the first action is in past perfect (had been friends) because it happens before the police came. Right? So far so good. I get that. Now this part is clear in my mind. The only thing that I still don't understand why "we were friends" is in past simple and not in past perfect because it happens BEFORE THE PAST PERFECT! The past simple never happens before the past perfect, that is the part that doesn't add up. The starting point is we were five, so if it is the starting point, of course it happens before. For example, if I say "I have been friends since we were five", the action of be five happens BEFORE the action of be friends, and the past simple happens before the present perfect, so it makes sense to put the verb "be five" in past simple and the verb "be friends" in present perfect because the action of be five happens BEFORE THE ACTION OF BE FRIENDS! Then, the past perfect happens before the past simple, for example "When I got home, I realised that I had left my keys at home." ---> the action of leave happens before the action of realise. So if the verb realise is in past simple and the action of leave happens before realise, the action of leave has to be in past perfect (had left). So here I am applying the same logic. The verb that we use with since is always the starting point, so it happens before the action in the perfect tense (I have been working here since I was 20 -- the action of be 20 is the starting point of work, so it happens before work, so the first action has to be in past simple and the second one in present perfect). In my student's case, the action of be 5 is the starting point of being friends, so it happens before being friends. So how is it possible that we use past simple for an action (be 5) that happens before an action in past perfect (be friends)? It is supposed to be the other way around: past perfect happens before past simple. That is the thing that doesn't add up to me... Do you know what I mean? Not sure if I managed to explain it well in writing...

Hello GrammarLover,

I'm pretty sure I understand what you mean. I think your mistake is in thinking that the 'since' clause is the reference point that the past perfect is referring to.

"It was the police. John was missing. John had been my best friend since we were five years old." For the sake of explanation, here is the timeline that I understand for this story, which is told in 2022 (after all of the events below). I've invented the exact years, obviously, and include them only in the hope that it helps clarify the timing.

1. we were five years old (1985)
2. we became best friends (later in 1985)
3. we were best friends for many years (1985-2020)
4. John went missing (2020)
5. the police came to ask about John (later in 2020)

All of the clause 'John had been my best friend since we were five years old', which has a past perfect verb as its main verb, takes 5 (the moment the police came later in 2020) as its reference point; 'had been' thus refers to 3 (1985-2020). In other words, 'John had been my friend' does NOT take 'since we were five years old' as its past reference point.

Does that make sense?

I admire your dedication to understanding this.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team