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.first thank you for answering our questions. I have an question here about using simple past for period of time in the past and as i know we use present perfect for this so i am confused. So what the difference in meaning bettwen these two sentences :
I lived in Kurdistan for two years.
I have lived in Kurdistan for two years.

Hello ronaz2015,

In the first sentence 'lived' the speaker no longer lives in Kurdistan. In the second sentence the speaker still lives there.

The past simple describes finished actions or states in the past. The present perfect links a past action or state to the present.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I don't know exactly which came first, British Council's version of Past Perfect (maybe 1 June 2015) or BBC 6 Minute Grammar (16 June 2015), but their examples used are very similar.
BBC's 1st example was "Mary rang John's doorbell at 8:15 yesterday, but John had gone to work."
Others were "I was pleased when I got a text from Jim, because I'd lost his number" and "When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine she realised she'd washed her phone."
It really doesn't matter as both British Council and BBC are both excellent resources, but I'm curious as to whether there is a link between them.
Just wondering . . .

Hello Linda,

Although we do collaborate with the BBC from time to time on specific projects (e.g. Word on the Street), as far as I know, there is no link between the writing of this page and the BBC. This page on LearnEnglish was created in 2008, but it's likely been updated since then – although we could probably figure out exactly when it was written, I'm afraid we just don't have the time to devote to that. In any case, as you point out, both pages are useful resources.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

I read my little cousin's homework yesterday and I saw a demonstrative paragraph in it and I just copied the paragraph below:

"Last summer, I had an awful experience. I woke up early one morning and I saw a stranger from the balcony. I tried to call my dad but he has not returned my call yet. I was so scared. Then I called 999. Luckily, the police came after a few minutes."

I am a bit confused about the sentence "I tried to call my dad but he has not returned my call yet. " Should present perfect tense really be used rather than past perfect tense in the sentence? Is this sentence perfectly written in the paragraph?

Thank you for answering my question~~

Hello tssang,

The mixing of tenses here does not seem correct to me. I would say that the tenses in the narrative should be consistent and so past perfect would be correct, as you say.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Peter or other kind helper,

If you think "the mixing of tenses here does not seem correct to me",
would you please rewrite the paragraph ? I know it takes your valuable time but I really wonder how it should be fixed...

Thank you very much

Hello tssang,

The only correction needed is in the sentence which you highlighted. This should read:

...but he did not return my call.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Peter or other kind helped,

I guess the writer put perfect tense ( HAS not returned my call yet ) in that sentence because the writer wanted to show that the father did return call, but he was late as the child couldn't wait and called the police. He might have called back right after the police caught the stranger .If so, will it seem right to you for saying "I tried to call my dad but he HAD not returned my call yet." ? Or still "did not return my call " is better ?

Thank you !

Hello tssang,

'Has' here would imply the the speaker is still waiting for the return call now, which is rather unlikely as the situation has resolved itself. Therefore 'had' would be the correct form.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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