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

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Comments

Hello MCWSL,

Yes, it could. I'd probably just say 'John made' in most situations, though, as it seems obvious that he must have made them before she could possibly take them. But you could use the past perfect to emphasise that fact.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello.
I just want to ask one question.
May I say "Yesterday I had made three jobs" or I have to say "Yesterday I made three jobs"? Can I use past perfect tense only if it is followed by "before"?
Thanks a lot

Hello ivarsps,

The correct form of the sentence here would be:

Yesterday I did three jobs.

The past perfect is used when you are looking back from the past at another action earlier in the past. The key is that the two actions are related in some way, not that the word 'before' is used.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

When refering to someone who has passed away; is it possible to say "Jim would have been dead for two years come February"

Hello Lee-Ann,

We use 'would have been' to describe situations which are not true. If Jim is dead then you could say 'Jim would have been 65 years old this year'. If you want to talk about a true/real situation then you would use 'will': 'Jim will have been dead for two years come February'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,

Regarding the following example sentence in this page:
"I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together but we’d lost touch with each other"

I understand why we used past perfect tense "we had been", however for the next verb "lost", why do we use past perfect as well?

does it mean:
a) Jim and I went to school together, we lost touch to each other *while* we were at the school.
(i.e. lost touch and went to school happened at around the same time, kind of like the other example sentence in this page: "James cooked breakfast when we got up", where "cooked breakfast" and "we got up" happened at the same time)

b) Jim and I went to school together, but we lost touch to each other *after* we left the school (probably graduated)
(i.e. the event: lost touch, happened after "we went to school together", but before I received the letter)

Second question is:
If I change "had lost" from past perfect to present perfect simple, is this grammatically correct?
i.e. I got a letter from Jim last week. We had been at school together but we *have* lost touch with each other.
(if it is grammatically correct, what is the difference between the above sentence and the original?)

Thank you.

Hi learning_always,

Explanation (b) is correct. Getting the letter is the main past time event; the other two actions are past perfect because they happened before this past time and a relevant to it.

The sentence with a present perfect form does not feel right because 'we have lost touch' suggests that it is still true (unfinished past), whereas 'I got a letter' tells us that the speaker is back in touch with Jim again. The issue is not so much grammatical but contextual - there is a conceptual clash here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I had commented before!!

Hi ser ,
Can you help me , I am reading a english book for learning , it name Our Universe by Roy A Galant ,and I found he used the Past Perfect an perfect countuins in this sentence :
"By 46 B.C., the calender had fallen hopeleesly out of pace with the seasons ,and Julius Caesar decreed that the lenght of the year should be 365 days plus one extra day every four years. But, by the 1500's ,people realized that the Julian calender had been falling behind the seasons at the rate of one day every 125 years."
Why he used them ? , and what the meaning of 1500's ?
My Regards

Hi fyooz,

I'm afraid we can't explain the uses of given forms by authors from elsewhere, particularly when the passage quoted is part of a much larger context and, in any case, has multiple errors in it.

The phrase 1500s refers to the period of time from 1500 to 1599. It is often used to talk about decades: the sixties (the 60s/he 1960s) etc.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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