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

Hi Sir, is there any section at this site for active & passive voices?

Hi Imran 26,

There are several pages on this topic and also references to it on various skills pages. To find pages on particular topics you can use the search facility. Just type in, for example 'passive' and you will see a list of results:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/search/apachesolr_search/passive

 

You can also use our grammar pages. Click on the Verbs section and then look for the link to active and passive voice on the right.

You can also look at our Intermediate Grammar pages, which has a link to passives.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, can you tell me if the following sentence is correct: She is ok now but she had been feeling sick for over a week AFTER she went to a doctor.
( this sentence is from an exercise book and another option instead of AFTER was ONCE. Which word is more suitable in the context: after or once?
Can we use AFTER with past perfect continuous?
Thanks a lot!

Hello Thomas2300,

I think 'after' is the better of the two options. 'Once' would suggest that the visit caused her to feel sick; 'after' simply tells us that the visit did not solve the problem immediately.

You can use the past perfect coninuous following 'after'.

 

Generally, we do not comment on examples from other sources. We're happy to discuss our own examples and the information on our pages, but if you have a question about something in other materials you really need to ask the author. We don't know the context and may not agree with what is being explained.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,
thank you very much for your prompt response.

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

I have been confused how to use past perfect tense. I have read all the information given by this website.
I understood 1 use of past perfect to tell which action happened first but don't know other uses.

Is there any use of past perfect to tell about an action which is completed in the past.? for example - I had lost my camera.
please differentiate between 'he didnot finished his work' and ' he had not finished his work'.

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