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Past perfect

Level: intermediate

The past perfect is made from the verb had and the past participle of a verb:

I had finished the work.
She had gone.

The past perfect continuous is made from had been and the -ing form of a verb:

had been working there for a year.
They had been painting the bedroom.

The past perfect is used in the same way as the present perfect, but it refers to a time in the past, not the present. We use the past perfect:

  • for something that started in the past and continued up to a given time in the past:

When George died, he and Anne had been married for nearly fifty years.
She didn't want to move. She had lived in Liverpool all her life.

For this use, we often use the past perfect continuous:

She didn't want to move. She had been living in Liverpool all her life.
Everything was wet. It had been raining for hours.

  • for something that happened several times before a point in the past and continued after that point:

He was a wonderful guitarist. He had been playing ever since he was a teenager.
He had written three books and he was working on another one.

  • when we are reporting our experience up to a point in the past:

My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I had ever had.
I was pleased to meet George. I hadn’t met him before, even though I had met his wife several times.

  • for something that happened in the past and is important at a later time in the past

I couldn't get into the house. I had lost my keys.
Teresa wasn't at home. She had gone shopping.

We often use expressions with for and since with the past perfect:

I was sorry when the factory closed. I had worked there for ten years
I had been watching that programme every week since it started, but I missed the last episode.

We do not normally use the past perfect continuous with stative verbs. We use the past perfect simple instead:

Up until that moment, I'd never believed (NOT been believing) in astrology.

Past perfect


Past perfect and past simple


Past perfect and hypotheses

We can also use the past perfect to make hypotheses about the past (when we imagine something). See these pages:


Hello DaniWeebKage,

Both the simple and the progressive are possible here. Both describe a past event which had an effect on a later past situation.

The simple form emphasises the action as a whole, while the progressive form emphasises the process. That can mean different things in different contexts. For example, the simple form may suggest that the action is completed, or at least the speaker is not considering that it may continue. The progressive may indicate that the action is incomplete, or at least that the speaker is aware that it may continue.


The differences are nuances rather than clear distinctions.




The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You, Sir
But I still have confusion about those two.
1) Her eyes looked watery and red. I thought she had been crying. (Does it mean she was crying at the moment of suggesting her appearance?)
So In that case, I can't use the Past Perfect because she was still crying at that moment. Am I correct?
2) Have you been smoking? I smell of smoke.
Have you smoked? I smell of smoke.
Which should I use? And Why?
3) I am tired. I've been working. (Does it emphasize the action of working is continue?
I am tired. I've worked( Does it mean the action is finished and I am feeling tired because of it?
Thank You, Sir,
Hope you answer all my questions.
Have a great day!

Hello again DaniWeebKage,

'She had been crying' tells us that the speaker could see the evidence of her crying, but it does not tell us whether or not she had finished crying. The past perfect works in the same way as the present perfect in that sense. If I say 'She has been crying' then it does not tell you if she is still crying or not, but only that the evidence of her crying is still visible.


The correct form for your second question is 'Have you been smoking?' as the question is about the activity (smoking) rather than the result/achievement (how many cigarettes).


The third example works in the same way. If you want to talk about your achievements then the simple form is appropriate: 'I've worked on three projects today'. However, if you want to talk about the activity and its effects then the continuous form should be used: 'I'm tired because I've been working (all day).'



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You , Sir
I've read a article about a narration.
The past perfect is used when we have two past references (then/before then).
Shouldn't we say
She had been to this house before. It had been cold, that time, when they'd played tennis in the courtyard. Now, it seemed different.(As we focus on it seemed different)
Instead of
She had been to this house before. It was cold, that time, when they played tennis in the courtyard. Now, it seemed different?

Could you plz explain about this in detail?

Hello DaniWeebKage,

As you say, the past perfect requires two past time references. However, there must be a connection between the two past times/actions. This could be because one caused the other, or because one action changed or influenced a later action. Often the choice is up to the speaker and depends on how they see the two actions: as a simple sequence, in which case past simple + past simple is used, or as two related events, in which case past perfect + past simple may be preferred.


Both of your examples are fine. The version with the past perfect seems more likely to me as it helps to draw a connection between the two events/states - not a causal connection, of course, but a connection in terms of change which is relevant and important to our narrator.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You Very Much, Sir Peter,
I want to ask my last questions and this will clarify all my confusion about tenses.
(I can now use tenses correctly. Thanks to this website)
1) As you said when we want to talk about activity and it affects you, we use the Present Continuous.

1)Then, Can't I use " I'm tired because I've worked too much", " I feel dizzy because I've eaten too much"?
2) What important is up to the speaker which he wants to tell us like he completed or he wants to tell his activity. Right?
3) Can I use the Present Perfect with
"The previous day", " the last (night/day)"?
Does the same go with Past Perfect?
4) She is not at work. She has gone to her native town.
It can tell us " she has gone very recently" or " she has gone from some time in the distant past up to now?
Thank You.
Hope you answer all my questions.
Have a beautiful day!!!

Hello again DaniWeebKage,

The choice of simple or continuous is often one of emphasis. In other words, often both are possible/correct.

In (1), both simple and continuous could be used. The simple form would suggest that the speaker has finished working/eating.

(2) The most important information in each sentence remains how the speaker feels at the moment.

(3) No. We do not use the present perfect when there is a finished time reference.

(4) The sentence does not tell us when the person left. It could be recently or long ago. We know only that she is no longer here. Of course, the context may provide additional information.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Could you please help me with the following sentence? Which one is correct or better than the other? Why?
- He didn't come to school because he had been ill.
- He didn't come to school because he was ill.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both sentences are grammatically possible.

The first (with had been) implies that the person was sick before school. It does not tell us whether or not the person was still sick when it was time to go to school. They may have been healthy by that point (but still weak or worried about making other people sick, for example).

The second sentence tells us that the person was sick when they were supposed to go to school

Neither sentence tells us anything about the present.



The LearnEnglish Team

This tip is helpful. Thanks.