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 team Learn English
In your Quick grammar section of past perfect the example : "The Romans had spoken Latin"
is it correct? It is still not clear to me.
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.
So is the use of past perfect correct in the given example?
Thank you
Pavan Kaur

Hello Pavan,

This sentence is intended as an example of a common mistake so you are right to recognise that it is wrong. I can see that the page is not as clear as it should be and that other people might think that this is intended to be a good example so, following your comment, I have edited the page to make it clearer.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk
Thank you so much for answering my LOT OF questions and clarifying my doubts on usage of simple past and present perfect; using "careers" in plural sense.

I shall (or will....?) definitely read the page on active and passive voice.
I think using "shall" in the above sentence is fine as as it also demonstrates determination...am I correct?

Thank you.

Pavan Kaur

Hello Pavan,

Both 'shall' and 'will' are correct here, as you say, but in modern English 'shall' is actually quite unusual and sounds a little old-fashioned in most contexts. It is really only frequently used in questions as a way of making a polite suggestion:

Shall we go?

Shall we invite Bob to the party?

In this use it has a similar meaning to 'should' and a sense of 'Do you think it is a good idea to...?'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello
1. For the last seven years Jane (involved) has been involved in developing sales training.
2. Jane (nominate) has been nominated for several awards over the last few years for innovations she has made in the area of sales training.
3. She (promote) was promoted several times.

In sentence 1. why can't we say "was involved" instead of "has been involved"?
In sentence 2. why can't we say "was nominated" instead of "has been nominated"?
In sentence 3. can we say "got promoted" instead of "was promoted"?

Also in what scenarios do we use passive voice?
Is "career" a singular countable noun? If it is, how do we use "careers" in plural sense?

Hello Pavan,

Those are a lot of questions!

In 1, 'for the last seven years' suggests that Jane is still involved nowadays -- for this reason, the past simple isn't correct. If she is no longer involved now, then you should use a time expression that makes this clear, e.g. 'for seven years' or 'From 2010 to 2017'.

Sentence 2 is the same -- 'last' includes the present time.

In sentence 3 you could say 'got promoted' or 'was promoted' -- they mean the same thing, though 'got' is more informal and might not be appropriate in some contexts. You could also say 'has been promoted', which would suggest that she is still rising in the company as you speak. If you say 'was' or 'got', it makes it sound like her time in the company is finished.

You can read more about the passive voice on our active and passive page.

Many people have different careers at different stages of their lives. For example, I know a musician who used to be a teacher. First he was a teacher and then he switched careers -- he's now a musician.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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