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:

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Hello Dayan

You could indeed say 'She had bought a new car before she sold the old one' and the use of the past perfect for 'buy' in this way makes more sense to me too. I'm afraid I can't explain the sentence that you ask about without knowing more about the context it was written in -- sorry!

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Can I use either "got" or "had got" or both in the following sentence? - After I had got to the stadium, I realized that the match had already started. I think we can't use "had got" as there is another past perfect "had started" Thank you

Hello Ahmed,

You can use 'had got'. This is not because there is another past perfect, but rather because the action of arriving at (get to) the stadium comes before another action in the past (realise).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Is it correct to use the past perfect tense to express past habits like in the following sentence? - I had always arranged my things before I went to bed. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Yes, that is correct as long as the habit is no longer true: I had always... but now I don't worry about that sort of thing.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

so, what is the difference between the two sentences? - I had always arranged my things before I went to bed. - I always arranged my things before I went to bed. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The first sentence (had always) would be used as part of a narrative, in which the speaker/writer is describing how things were before another time in the past, after which they were different. For example:

When I went to university I became a very messy person. I had always arranged my things before I went to bed, but at university I started leaving them all over the floor...

 

The second sentence simply describes the past. It does not suggest this comes before any other action in the past.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your explanation for this example: She didn't want to move. She had lived in Liverpool all her life. why you didn't use the present perfect? I can't understand where is the past tine here

Hello Amit12148

By far the most common tense used with 'ago' is the past simple, but it is possible (though relatively rare) to use it with the past perfect. For example:

Three years ago, I had already moved to Spain.

Instead, we commonly use 'earlier' or 'prior' when the point of time is in the past, e.g. 'He had moved to Spain six years earlier'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi wolfie95

No, the past simple is the correct form here: 'When I arrived, my father was watching TV.'

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir Is it alright to say 'I have been watching that program every week.' Is it grammatically correct? Thank you. Regards Lal
Hello Lal Yes, that is grammatically correct and natural for an appropriate situation. All the best Kirk The LearnEnglish Team
Hello. In your explanation above, there is the following sentence: "They had been staying with us since the previous week." Is it better to say "for the previous week" What is the difference? Thank you.
Hello Ahmed Imam, There is a difference in meaning: > 'since the previous week' - this means that the staying began in the previous week and continued from then > 'for the previous week' - this means that the staying was for the period of the previous week (it lasted from the beginning of the previous week to the end of the previous week). ~ Peter The LearnEnglish Team
Hello Peter, I have just read the following explanation on a website. When we say last week/month/year, etc. without the, we mean the week/month/year immediately before the current one. When we say the last week/month/year, etc., we mean the 7/30/365 days immediately before this one. If I am speaking on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, then Last week means the week from Sunday, October 28, 2012 to Saturday, November 3, 2012. The last week means the seven days before today, Wednesday, October 31 to today, November 6. Last month means October 2012. The last month means October 7 to today, November 6. Last year means 2011. The last year means November 7, 2011 to today, November 6. So on November 6, 2012, these sentences mean the following: I was sick last month. = I was sick some time in October. I don’t say for how long. I’m not sick now. I’ve been sick since last month. = I got sick some time in October, and I’m still sick. I don’t say for how long I’ve been sick because I don’t say when in October I became sick. (I could say I’ve been sick since early/mid/late October if I want to give more detail.) I’ve been sick for the last month. = I got sick 30 days ago and I’m still sick. What do you think of That explanation? Is it correct? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I'm afraid we don't comment on explanations from elsewhere. Our policy to offer our own material but not get into critiquing what other sites or books might have to say.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello dear mentors and happy new year. Hope you all are doing well. Just i have a question about past perfect continous and past continous ,i really confused what is different between them and when should i choose one of them ,to get right sentence??? please give me some advice to realize. Thanks in advance.

Hello Ali boroki

I would first recommend you read our talking about the past page, where the differences between these tenses is explained. If you have any specific questions after that, please feel free to ask us there. It would help if you gave an example, even if you're not sure that it's correct.

All the best
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, Hope you are doing well, I would like you to explain the following one. I know that if we use the "be with pastpatrticiable however, where we can use "Be with ing "( continues tense ) please explain

Hi Mohammed,

'be' is used to form any continuous tense -- please see our present continuous page for some examples.

Is that what you mean? I'm not sure I've understood your question. If you meant something else, please give us an example and we'll do our best to help you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Is this sentence correct? No no has attended to fix it even though the visit had been cheduled for this Monday

Hello Joanna,

No, that sentence is not correct. I can't be completely sure, not knowing the full context, but I think what you want to say is probably this:

No-one has been to fix it, even though the visit was scheduled for Monday.

 

However, I think the natural way to express it would be as follows:

Someone was supposed to come on Monday, but we are still waiting.

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir Please let me know the following sentences are right or wrong because I have doubts. While my mother was cooking, the power went off. While my mother has been cooking, the power went off. ( I think this is wrong-present perfect cont.) but while my mother had been cooking, the power went off. Thank you. Regards Lal

Hello Lal,

The first sentence is correct. The second, as you say, is not. This is because the verb 'went' describes an action in a finished time frame, whereas 'has been cooking' describes unfinished time.

You could say 'While my mother has been cooking, the phone has rung three times'. This would all refer to unfinished time, so it would mean that she was still cooking and the phone might ring again.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir One more question under the same (While my mother was cooking, the power went off.) Can I say ?: While my mother had been cooking, the power went off. Thank you. Regards Lal

Hi Lal,

No, I'm afraid that's not correct. 'had been cooking' makes reference to some other past event that happened after the cooking, but no other such event is mentioned -- 'went off' describes an action that happened during the cooking, not after it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir Thanks a lot for your answers regarding perfect tenses. Please help me regarding this,too.. They have been staying with us since previous month. They had been staying with us since previous month. Which one is correct? Both or one then which one. Thank you. Regards Lal

Hi Lal,

I'm afraid neither is correct, but both need only a minor change to make them correct. The second one would be correct if the word 'the' were inserted before 'previous' ('the previous month'). The first one would be correct if you changed 'previous' to 'last'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi rsduraosa,

I can't think of a context when this would be correct. The past perfect makes reference to a past time before the action of the verb, but there is no reference to another past time in this sentence -- there is a reference to the present.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi. Dear BC team. I want to ask about the past perfect after "before". I have read about it in textbooks, but they usually say that that's how it is used without bothering to explain why. It is a long post, but I have been thinking about it for a long time. However, I still cannot see any logic in it. So probably, I am not asking why it is used that way, but only if sentences "b" and "c" are also possible. And if they are, do they carry the same meaning, or different meaning? (Note: a sentences are taken from various grammar books.) However, if you can even shed light in terms of logic on this use of past perfect, indulge me, please. A) 1a: He addressed her before I had introduced him to her. b: He had addressed her before I introduced him to her. c: He addressed her before I introduced him to her. 2a: We reached the stadium before the match had started. b: We had reached the stadium before the match started. c: We reached the stadium before the match started. 3a: He went out before I had finished my sentence. b: He had gone out before I finished my sentence. c: He went out before I finished my sentence. 4a: I left university before I had finished the course I was doing. b: I had left uinversity before I finished the course I was doing. c: I left university before I finished the course I was doing. 5a: She sacked him before he had a chance to explain his behaviour. b: She had sacked him before he had a chance to explain his behaviour. c: She sacked him before he had a chance to explain his behaviour. (In one grammar book sentences 1 and 2 were split into two. He had addressed her. I had not introduced him to her before. We reached the stadium. The match had not started. Which is fine. I understand that. But in my view, it still doesn't justify the use of past perfect after "before" when I put the two sentences together. I really can't see any logic in it whatsoever Emotion: smile In my language we only have two tenses, the past, present and future. On top of that we do not have simple and continuous forms. So you can probably imagine, how confusing the English tense system can be, and how difficult it can be to understand where the past perfect is obligatory and where it is optional. Basically, I can only see it obligatory in third conditional sentences, and with the preposition when in time clauses to avoid confusion. For example,When she arrived we had dinner. When she arrived we had had dinner.) B) This curiosity seems to appear also with the preposition "until". Again, "a" sentences are taken from a grammar book. Are "b" and "c" sentences also possible, and if yes, do they have the same or different meaning? 6a: The teacher waited until all had finished. b: The teacher had waited until all finished. c: The teacher waited until all finished. 7a: I didn't know what he was like until I had met him. b: I hadn't known what he was like until I met him. c: I didn't know what he was like until I met him. Thank you very much for your comments. I am trying to write it down in a dumbed down form so it easy to use for as many students as possible.

Hello radovan1972,

It seems to me that you've understood the use of the past perfect quite well, though I can see how its redundancy in some situations is frustrating. Whether or not the past perfect is required really depends on how sentences are constructed. For example, if the word 'before' isn't used, then the past perfect can be used to indicate that one actions happens before another. For example, in 'When I got to the station, the train had already left', the past perfect is clearly necessary unless we change the sentence to something like 'The train left before I got to the station'. In third conditionals, as you point out, it is also necessary.

Using the past perfect with the words 'before' and 'until' does indeed seem redundant and I don't see any difference in meaning between the three versions of each sentence that you ask about. None of them sound unnatural to me, either, which suggests that we do routinely use the past perfect in this way. It might help to think of the past perfect as being a way of emphasising things (rather than as necessary) in these cases.

I hope this helps you make sense of things.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi there! In the sentence - "she didn't want to move" - is this this also a long example of the past continuous? Many thanks, Kieran

Hi Kieran,

There is no continuous form in that sentence. The verb 'didn't want' is a negative past simple form and it is followed by an infinitive ('to move').

Continuous forms require a form of the verb 'to be' and a present participle (-ing form):

He is working hard.

She has been spending a lot of time there recently.

He will be arriving around three o'clock.

You can read more about continuous forms on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

My wife says I am wrong about this: while looking for the remote, she says "I had put it on the couch." I replied, "Before doing what with it?" She said "what do you mean?" I said, frustratedly, "...never mind..." Was her use correct, and my protest out of line? I cannot stand anything less than the proprieties in language, unless I am writing questions to someone. Please help.

Hello Smokenmoses,

You are correct here. The past perfect needs to have a second reference point in the past. If we are simply describing one action in the past then we use the past simple: I put it on the couch.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

this sentence: "I wish you'd told me earlier." should not it be like this: "I wish you'd HAVE told me earlier." ? :-)

Hello Cyclorbit,

No, the correct form is as given: I wish you'd told me earlier.

When we use 'wish' to talk about an unreal present we use a past form:

I wish I was an astronaut.

When we use 'wish' to talk about an unreal past we use a past perfect form:

I wish I had studied mathematics at school.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, Could you explain why we need to use past perfect in this sentence: "Meeting her has yet been the luckiest that had happened to me"

Hi Thieuluong124,

I'm afraid that sentence is not correct. The word 'yet' does not really fit there and the use of verb forms is inconsistent. You cannot mix the present perfect ('has been') with the past perfect ('had happened') in this way. If you are quoting from a source, please check the original sentence.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I wanted to know if this sentence is correct:"She had thrown the plate and the plate broke." Thanks in advance!

Hello ArminMaca,

I think two past simple forms ('she threw... the plate broke') would be more likely. However, without knowing the context it is impossible to say for sure.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello aseel aftab,

Both forms are possible here. Which is chosen depends upon how the speaker sees the action. If there is an evident present result then 'have' is more likely. If there was a result in the past (at the time of thanking, for example) then 'had' is more likely.

Context is crucial when dealing with aspect (perfective or progressive). It is difficult to comment on decontextualised examples such as this.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I would like to ask which is correct: 1. Was he scolded? 2. Is he scolded? I am confused when to use Is/Was if the verb is supposed to happen in the past. For example: Statement: The teacher caught Jean stealing exam questions the other day. Question: Was he scolded? or Is he scolded? Please clarify which of the question is correct. P.S. Did he get scolded? (is this the more 'correct' way of asking it?) Best regards, Eir

Hello Eir,

If the action happened in the past then the correct form is 'was scolded'. We would use the form 'is scolded' when talking about general time - things that happen typically or all the time rather than in one concrete instance.

As an aside, 'scold' is quite an unusual word with a rather literary ring to it. 'Tell off' is much more common in everyday conversation so the most likely question in your example would be Was he told off?

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

What is the difference between "She didn’t want to move. She had lived in Liverpool all her life." "She didn’t want to move. She had been living in Liverpool all her life." Does the first sentence indicate that the action is finished, or the person had died? while the second sentence indicate that the person is still living in Liverpool?