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
 
 

Hi Sir, 
The following question has been confusing me since long.
Steve: I didn't get your email
me:  But I had sent it to you
In the above conversation i want to say that i had sent that email long before he checked it or as soon as i was told to do it.  So is my answer right or wrong ?
Because i am not specifying any activity that happened before .....i.e. i am using only half part of past perfect tense so does that make my answer wrong?
 
 
 
 

Hi maluram,

Your answer is possible given a specific context, though personally I would use the past simple and include an explicit time reference in your answer, e.g.: "But I sent it to you on Wednesday".

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Sir for your prompt reply

Hello sir,
There is a little confusion for me in using present perfect and simple past..
For example..when we will use "i have taken the book" ,"i took the book"..

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