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 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

Hello Agnesia,

Those tenses are correct. It would also be correct to use the past simple ('stayed') in the first sentence - this is a choice you can make.

I think it would be better to have one sentence with 'so' in the middle rather than two sentences.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Mr. Peter
And I have one more question..
Please accept my sincere apologize and I promise that I'll learn the lesson that I have missed. (I'll learn my missed lesson)
Are these sentences correct??
Thank you a lot...

Hello Agnesia,

After 'my sincere' you need a noun (apologies), not a verb (apologize). We would probably say study or go over rather than learn in this context and us a past simple (missed) instead of a present perfect form (have missed). The sentence would thus be as follows:

Please accept my sincere apologies and I promise that I'll go over the lesson that I missed.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Mr. Peter M,
I need your help
Here is a text, in which I have to put the right verb tense..

"Let's go and see what(1. do)... at our new house now, "said Dorothy.
The construction of a new house on the same street(2. plan)... for several years. The contractor (3. be)... at work only a few days.
"I am sure the whole cellar(4. dig)...by this afternoon and they (5. begin)... to put in the wall, "(6. continue).. Dorothy.

I think so
1. (1. do)-is being done
2. (2. plan)-had been planned
3. (3. had been, or was-I am not sure)
4. (4. dig)-will have been dug
5. (5. begin)-will begin
6. (6. continue)- continued.
Am I right??
Thank you

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