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

Hello maynaing,

I'm afraid this is much too complex a question to answer in such a short comment! The present perfect related the past to the present in a number of ways, which you can see on our page on the present perfect. The past perfect is similar, but relates an earlier past to a later past, as you can see on our page on the past perfect. You might also find this page on the perfective aspect in general useful.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Why is it that the instructions say "DO NOT USE CONTINUOUS TENSES. And yet after my quiz, I had mistakes so i clicked on the "Show Answers" and some answers were "had been burgled"... etc,... ? -- #confused

Hello aisha_aamir,

Continuous tenses are those which use 'be + verb-ing', such as 'I am going' or 'He will be sleeping'. The example you give ('had been burgled') is a past perfect passive form, not a continuous form.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir
Can we use past perfect for single sentence?
Eg : I had watched the movie

Hello Ajaz ajju,

The past perfect needs a past time context - it must refer to a past time, showing an action or state which is before that past time. However, that context does not need to be in the same sentence. It could be in another sentence, or it could be implied by the topic of discussion.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, i have a question in mind .
can we use the past perfect with the present ? because i came across these sentence:
1. we had studied six new tenses so far and we are going to learn more this semester.
2.Bob wants to buy a new car. He had owned this one for ten years.
3. linda is still sick. She had had a bad cold for over a week.

is this perhaps aa exception for " historic present" ?!!

Hello nasder,

Perfect forms are dependent on time-relations, and so the context is important, and it is hard to be completely sure when looking at sentences in isolation.

We use the past perfect for actions or events which had an effect in the past. Your first sentence describes an activity which has an effect in the present and so the present perfect would seem to be appropriate:

We have studied six new tenses so far and we are going to learn more this semester.

The same is true for the other two sentences. Where an action or state is still true at the time of speaking, or where it has a result at the time of speaking, we use the present perfect rather than the past perfect. To use the past perfect there needs to be another past time reference.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

 

Hi,

I've learned that the present perfect cannot be used with when-question. How about the past perfect? Is it possible to use it in when-questions? If possible, what kind of context allows it to occur?

Regards,
K_H

Hello K_H,

Most of the time, that's probably true, but I'm not sure I'd say that it's true that the present perfect is never used with 'when'. For example, 'When have I ever lied to you?' is correct. I can't think of a 'when' question that uses the past perfect off the top of my head, but I expect there may be some situations when it would be appropriate.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi teachers,

"Product development of the watch had begun in March 2014 and the team launched a marketing campaign to sell it on 13 June 2015."

The sentence above uses past perfect to tell us that product development comes before its launch.

My question: Is that necessary to use past perfect here? (1) It is not important to tell the sequence of the two actions (product development and launching) in the sentence. Of course a product needs to be developed before launching. (2) Specific time is given for the two actions (March 2014 and 13 June 2015). No ambiquity is there at all. (3) Using simple past tense for both actions can do the job.

Please kindly advise. Thank you.

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