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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

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Past perfect and past simple

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Past perfect and hypotheses

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

Comments

Hello Gabi rose,

'Since' carries with it a meaning of 'to the present time' and so we do not use it with verb forms showing finished time, like past forms. As you suggest, you need to use a perfect form here: They have been staying with us since...

I'm afraid I'm not sure I understand your second question. It's perfectly fine to ask something like:

Why didn't you show me your work? I would have liked to see it.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,
I tend to use one 'had' to apply to multiple verbs that I mean to be in the past perfect tense. Eg 'No one knew whether Percy had jumped or been pushed' (as opposed to 'had been pushed'); 'The bear had eaten the tangerine, burped and departed'. Is this acceptable? Might readers find it jarring and 'amateurish'?
Pete.

Hello Hptd01,

In general, yes it's fine to omit auxiliary verbs when the context makes the meaning clear. Native speakers do this very often and so actually it's great that you also do this. The sentence about the bear is also fine, but I'm afraid it's difficult to generalise beyond that. I might suggest using the word 'then', e.g. '... had eaten the tangerine, then burped and left' just because it's typical in a sequence of actions, but it's certainly not necessary.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello teachers,

If i wanted to simply express the fact that an action has taken place in the past, i could use the simple past tense, as in "i lost my wallet". However, could i also mean the same thing by saying "i had lost my wallet"? I understand that one of the uses of the past perfect simple is to state that an action had occurred before another past action/time in the past, as in "i didn't handy any money because i had lost my wallet", but is it grammatical to state simply "i had lost my wallet." without any accompanying statement such as "i didn't have any money", to mean simply that an action occurred in the past?

Thank!

Regards,
tim

Hello Tim,

The past perfect needs a second time reference - an earlier act in the past. That could be in the sentence or it could be in another part of a text, or it could be obvious from the context and known to both speakers. However, we do not use the past perfect without some known and shared second time reference.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,
could you please explain me the usage of past tenses in the following sentence?

"The three vases, which were produced during the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, had stood on the windowsill at the Museum in Cambridge for forty years".

I can't understand why we should use past simple in the first part of the sentence, although this event had happened before the vases appeared in the Museum.

Thanks

Hello Adi Shakti,

The past perfect in this sentence makes reference to another moment in time. Without knowing the context, I couldn't say what that other moment in time is, but it could be now or it could be some other period mentioned earlier in the text. But the point I'm trying to make is that the past perfect shows a clear sequence that the writer feels is important.

The past simple in the relative clause simply refers to a finished past time. It doesn't call attention to a sequence of events in the way the past perfect does, to continuity or progress in the way the past continuous would, or to some connection with the present as the present perfect does. The past simple is kind of a default past tense in many ways, and that's the way it's being used here.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,

With reference to your example above: "They had been staying with us since the previous week". May I know why the past perfect is used rather than the present perfect, as in "they have been staying with us since the previous week". my queries are:

a) Wouldn't the present perfect continuous do a better job of conveying the meaning that they stayed with us last week, and have continued to do so up to the present?

b) and if the present perfect continuous is applicable, would it be grammatical id I used the present perfect simple rather than continuous, as in "they have stayed with us since last week"?

c) lastly, would there be any difference between the present perfect continuous versus the present perfect (as in they have been staying versus they have stayed with us..since last week)?

Appreciate your advice with my above queries, thanks!

Tim

Hello Tim,

In 'They had been staying with us since the previous week', the people are not still staying with us now in the present (a). The present perfect continuous would mean this, but not the past perfect continuous. The present perfect simple doesn't work as well as the present perfect continuous, because the latter puts more focus on an unfinished action -- in this case, those people still staying with us is an unfinished action (b). The present perfect simple would sound a bit odd here, because, as I mentioned in the last sentence, the action is clearly unfinished (c). See the page I linked to for more on this.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

1)The lady prayed to the lord Buddha that her son be restored to life.
2)They advised the students that everyone read the instructions carefully.
3) The man asked his son that he go to Agra by car.
Sir, in all these three sentences above are of past subjective mood. How we come to know that the sentences are of indirect prayer, indirect advise, and indirect order respectively.
Please explain
Thanking you

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