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.

  • The Romans had spoken Latin

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

Hi Peter
Thank you so much, i understand now.
Can i ask you another question?
Is this correct to say:
"The waiter brought a drink that we didnt order."
Or
" the waiter brought a drink that we hadnt ordered."

Thanks in advance
Kind regards
Little granny

Hello Little granny,

Both sentences are correct, but the one with 'hadn't' is a little clearer because it indicates the time sequence more clearly.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,
Thank you for your replied.
"Had you had your breafast?" That is past perfect. Is that when you wanted to ask someone if they had had thier breakfast yesterday morning. Is that correct?

"Have you had your breakfast?" Is that present perfect? And is this when someone wanted to ask if they had had breakfast this morning yet.? Does that even make sense?

Kind regards
Little granny

Hi LitttleGranny,

Perfect tenses always refer to an action/state before something else. They are not used just because something is far in the past, but must related an action/state to a second time or action. Thus we would only say 'Had you had...' if there was another time relevant to the action. For example:

Did you have breakfast? - We use the past simple because it is a question about the past. It could be able this morning or a morning ten years ago or longer.

Had you had breakfast before he arrived? - Here we use the past perfect because the action is related to another action in the past. Note that this is not just a sequence of activities. In some way the two actions are related.

 

The present perfect works in a similar way except that rather than having an action in the past before another action in the past we have an action in the past which occurs before the present, and is related in some way to the present. For example:

Have you had breakfast? - We use the present perfect because the past action (having breakfast) is related to the present. We are not just asking about breakfast but rather about whether the person is hungry in the present, and this is how the action is related to the present.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter

I am a bit confused with the Had and Have questions. For example; Had you finished your homework before you went to the party? Or Have you finished your homework before you go to the party? When to use the have questions and when to use the had questions? And also is it correct to say Had you had you lunch yet?

Kind regards
Little Granny

Hello Little Granny,

In the first sentence you ask about only 'had' works (or 'did'). There are so many situations when we used 'had' and 'have', answering your question would take quite a lot of time. Could you please instead look at our past perfect and present perfect pages in the English Grammar? i think that should help you begin to understand this. If you have other questions, you are welcome to ask us, but please make them as specific as possible, as we aren't able to answer such general questions as the one you've asked us here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

Can you please tell me which sentence is correct:

Should I use past perfect: Since I had been busy working, I just finished this last night.
Or Past simple: Since I was busy with work, I just finished this last night.

Thank you.

Hello lara17,

Both forms are possible here and there is no real difference in meaning. I think 'only' would be a better choice than 'just' in this context, however.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter,

Thank you so much for your help! :)

Regards,

Lara

Hello
Could you help me, please???
The day before yesterday I had stayed up late. So I overslept and missed my lessons.
Am I right with the tenses??
Thanks

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