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. I'm confused can we use an other sentence in past besides past simple? Or simple past passive voice? Like for example: Joes had had his new car for 3 days when it was stolen 2. Don was feeling tired because she hadn't slept well the night before.

Hello mexbm,

Yes, those sentences are fine. All past forms have in common a past time reference, but past perfect forms are used when there are two time references. For example, in your sentences the time references are:

having the car and the car being stolen

feeling tired and not sleeping well

If we have only one time reference then we use the past simple.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

plz tell me can we use both and what is difference in meaning of these two sentences
1 SSC had conducted exam
2 SSC conducted exam

i know that first sentence in past perfect and second in simple past
but sometime i confuse what to use
thnxx

Hello Ayub ali khan,

The uses of the two forms are described on the page above. Both refer to past events, but the past perfect needs another event or time reference as it must be before another event; we do not use the past perfect on its own, but rather to show that one event was before another, and had some kind of influence on it.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hello sir when we use continue double had in a sentence pls
explain

Hello Ayub ali khan,

We make the past perfect with [had + past participle]. For example:

I had looked

She had gone

We had seen

'Had' can also be the past participle of 'have', so if we make a sentence with 'have' and we want to put it into the past perfect then the result is:

I had had

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thnx
plz solve one more problem i am confused about when to use 'be' in sentence i only know that 'be' uses in passive Voice i want to any other use of 'be'

Hello Ayub ali khan,

I'm afraid this is too general a question for us to answer here. 'Be' has many roles in English and to list and explain them all would require a very long explanation, which is not the purpose of these comments sections. If you have a particular example then we'll be happy to try to explain it, but please remember that our role here is to maintain the site; answering questions is something we can do only when time allows.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi there
I wanted to ask a question about vocabulary how to improve it, and i have Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis can i use this book for vocabulary particularly for IELTS. For me its taking too long 3 to 4hrs per day learn new words.

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