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.

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.





Hi learning_always,

Explanation (b) is correct. Getting the letter is the main past time event; the other two actions are past perfect because they happened before this past time and a relevant to it.

The sentence with a present perfect form does not feel right because 'we have lost touch' suggests that it is still true (unfinished past), whereas 'I got a letter' tells us that the speaker is back in touch with Jim again. The issue is not so much grammatical but contextual - there is a conceptual clash here.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

I had commented before!!

Hi ser ,
Can you help me , I am reading a english book for learning , it name Our Universe by Roy A Galant ,and I found he used the Past Perfect an perfect countuins in this sentence :
"By 46 B.C., the calender had fallen hopeleesly out of pace with the seasons ,and Julius Caesar decreed that the lenght of the year should be 365 days plus one extra day every four years. But, by the 1500's ,people realized that the Julian calender had been falling behind the seasons at the rate of one day every 125 years."
Why he used them ? , and what the meaning of 1500's ?
My Regards

Hi fyooz,

I'm afraid we can't explain the uses of given forms by authors from elsewhere, particularly when the passage quoted is part of a much larger context and, in any case, has multiple errors in it.

The phrase 1500s refers to the period of time from 1500 to 1599. It is often used to talk about decades: the sixties (the 60s/he 1960s) etc.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

And another question, sorry !
Do (by the time) or (by 1789) has a relation with past perfect ?
And what the meaning of "as well as" ?
And dose this book can help me to support my grammer and vocabiolry or there is a book can help me more ?
I'm sorry for a big number of qusetion

Thanks very much for your replys ..
If in any case the books have an error so I need to read a book that care with grammer for learning ?

I have deja vu, or first two examples I have just seen on bbc learningenglish. So I have idea how to practise past perfect tense: The BBC had published two sentences about Mary and John before LearnEnglish British Council pasted this examples on its site.

Hello clp920,

That doesn't surprise me – 'Mary' and 'John' are extremely common names and are probably used in many, many example sentences. Anyway, we're glad you've joined us.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Please make me confirm between Present perfect vs Past perfect.
Present perfect must rely on present time and past perfect must rely on past time, is it correct?