Read the grammar explanation and do the exercise.

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

Comments

Hello,

Could you please tell me if this is correct, "They are not speaking about this during the lessons." ? I'd like to know how to talk about something which is ongoing. The lessons occurred in the past, and are still occurring. I wish to say that in general they do not speak about a certain thing during the lessons, as in they did not in the past and the do not in general so they will not in the future either. So I guess my question is, how do we speak about something in general, but in a continuous form because it is something that happens during something else. Is it possible? Sorry for the long and convoluted comment.

Hello megank333,

The meaning here, if I understand you correctly, is a general one with reference to the lessons. In other words, you are not talking about a particular lesson or lessons, but rather something which is true during all lessons. The correct form here is the present simple (for general truths/typical behaviour) followed by a limiting time phrase:

They don't speak about this during the lessons.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hi ,
pls give me a clear picture of how to use " had " in simple past tense.

will be really thankful for this.

Hi shubhamgupta,

You could say, for example, 'I had a red bicycle when I was little.' Could you please be more specific? It's just that there are many, many ways in which 'had' can be used in the past simple. we'd also ask you to ask this question on our past simple page rather than here on our past perfect page.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, could you help me please?
What’s the difference between those two sentences?
“She had been married for three years when her son was born.”
“She was married for three years when her son was born.”
Thanks a lot, take care!

Hello zeynepucar,

It's hard to be certain without seeing the broader context, but the second sentence does not look correct to me. The first sentence describes a state in the past which ran up to an point later in the past, and which may have continued.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your replies, much appreciated.

Hi Kirk,
Thank you so much for your reply, this is very useful!
Could I ask you one more question please:
Is it common to use 'just' in combination with the Past Perfect or is it mostly used in combination with the Present Perfect, meaning an action a short while ago in the recent past? Thank you in advance once more!

Hi parachutist,

I'd say it's common with both the present perfect and the past perfect. The present perfect is used a lot more often than the past perfect, however, so if you looked at the number of occurences of each tense in a specific corpus, particularly of spoken English, I suspect you'd see it more occurences with the present perfect.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Could you help me please?
Is it correct to say:
When I arrived at the party, Ann had just left.
Or should I say:
When I arrived at the party, Ann had already left.
I was told that the adverb just is usually used in combination with the Present Perfect and not with the Past Perfect.
Thank you in advance.

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