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 sandwich87,

It depends on the context, but probably it is more a difference of emphasis. The second one emphasises the moment in which she was considering moving a bit more than the first one, but otherwise, unless there were a very specific context that indicated the contrary, they mean the same thing. The emphasis the continuous form suggests could, for example, be a way the writer tries to get us to imagine her experience in that moment a bit more vividly.

It's a subtle difference that is difficult to explain, but I hope that helps you a little bit. If not, please ask us again.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Hi, 1. What is difference between 'she went' and 'she had gone' ? I would like to say that 'had' is used for past perfect tense i.e when two actions performed in the past then first actions should be expressed in the past perfect. For example: She had gone to office before I reached home. I this example 'she had gone' is the fist action completed and ' I reached home' is action took after the 1st action. 2. My doubt here is : Some times we mention had only for single action without mentioning the second action. Please see below examples i. I had the time to help my daughter ii. They had trouble remembering iii. They have never had a course in money or how to invest it iv. They had difficulty grasping the relationship between their Income Statement and their Balance Sheet All the above four examples I got from the novel I was reading. Please clarify my doubts.. as these doubt are hovering in my for few years.

Hi nareshk,

You are correct to a point when you say 'had' is used for past perfect tense i.e when two actions performed in the past then first actions should be expressed in the past perfect. However, there is more to it than this. First of all, the past perfect is formed not only with 'had' but with [had + past participle]. Second, there needs to be a relationship of some kind between the two actions. If we are simply describing actions which happen in sequence then the past simple is used:

I arrived at work and had a cup of coffee.

We use the past perfect when there is a relationship as well as a sequence:

I was late and she had already left.

 

 

Your examples are not examples of the past perfect. As I said, the past perfect needs [had + past participle]. Your examples are as follows:

 

i. I had the time to help my daughter [a normal past simple ('had') followed by an object ('the time'); the construction here is 'have the time/money/energy/motivation (etc) to do something']


ii. They had trouble remembering [another normal past simple ('had') followed by an object ('trouble')' the construction here is 'have trouble/problems/difficulty (etc) doing something]

 

iii. They have never had a course in money or how to invest it [a present perfect form using the verb 'have' ('have had')]

 

iv. They had difficulty grasping the relationship between their Income Statement and their Balance Sheet [see example ii above]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Good Morning, As mentioned above ,[We use the verb had and the past participle for the past perfect:] and[The past perfect continuous is formed with had been and the -ing form of the verb:] 1) When George died he and Anne had been married for nearly fifty years. 2) She didn’t want to move. She had lived in Liverpool all her life. in 1st sentence: had+married[past participle for marry] : then why been here and what does it mean by placing here. In 2nd sentence had+lived[past participle] : why been is not used here. I mean to ask , why sometimes we use had been and have been [ exculding the past perfect and present perfect continuous sentences] in a sentence, what does it means.

Hello asr09,

The form here is [have/has + past participle] or [had + past participle]. In your example 'been' is the past participle of the verb 'be':

They are (present)

They were (past)

They have been {present pefect)

'Married' here is an adjective. It has the same form as the past participle of the verb 'marry' but it is an adjective in this sentence, just as in the phrase 'a married couple'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Good Morning, Thank you for answering , Mr peter. 1)I meant to say , do we use , have/has+been or had+ been with only adjectives in sentences.[ as you said married is an adjective ] Had + been +married [have form as helping verb]+[be form in past participle as a main verb + adjective]. 2)You have not used been with had lived because lived is a main verb in the sentence. 3) Do we use Have/has+been or Had+been in only passive sentence or other types of sentences also? 4)How do we come to know married is an adjective or a verb?

Hello asr09,

The form 'have been' is the present perfect of 'be' and can be used in many ways. It can be followed by an adjective or by a noun, as in 'I have been a teacher for twenty years', for example. It is a normal verb form.

'Have been' can also be used as an auxiliary - as part of certain verb forms. For example, we might say 'She has been living there for twenty years' (present perfect continuous) or 'She has been sacked from her job' (present perfect passive).

We recognise 'married' as an adjective through the context. It is possible for the verb 'marry' to be used in a passive form (example: 'They were married by the archbishop himself') but this would require a very clear context.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Jenny has worked on her school project all morning. I hasn't talked to Nick at the moment because he was rude to me yesterday Have you waited us for a long time? I have usually a shower in the evening is it correct?

Hello Svitlana1992,

Some of these sentences need some changes.

 

Jenny has been working on her school project all morning. [the continuous form emphasises an ongoing and probably unfinished activity]

 

I'm not talking to Nick at the moment because he was rude to me yesterday. [the present continuous is used for an action which is in progress at the time of speaking]

 

Have you been waiting for us for a long time? [see the comment with the first sentence above]

 

I usually have a shower in the evening. [adverbs usually come before the main verb]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Mike has already taken 50 photos today and it's only eleven o'clock in the morning. Help me please! Is it correct? Is it present perfect?

Hello Svitlana1992,

Yes, that sentence is quite correct. It is an example of the present perfect describing an action which began in the past and has an unfinished time reference (today has not ended yet).

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

If past perfect indicates the work completed action in the past then what about simple present. ? For example: 1) I had gone to office. ( in past perfect ) 2) I went to office ( in past simple) As per the understanding both looks same.

Hello nareshk,

For completed actions in the past we use the past simple. In your examples, 'went' is correct.

 

We use the past perfect only when there is another point of reference in the past and we want to relate the action to this point of reference. We would not use the past perfect without this. Thus, your first example would not be correct as it stands; it would need some other time reference. For example, you might say:

I had gone to the office before she woke up. ['before she woke up' is the second time reference - another time in the past; the first action is before this and references it]

 

I had gone to the office early that morning. [part of a narrative in which all actions are in the past; the 'had gone' takes place in this past time frame before some subsequent event later in the past]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir It is alright to say: I have had lunch. I have just had lunch. Could I use this in past perfect? eg. I had had lunch. I had just had lunch. or should I use another phrase? eg I was hungry. THANK YOU.

Hello Andrew international,
Those are all correct.
All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Could i have used " they were staying with us since last week" or when i use " since" it already applies to the perfect tenses?? Different subject : i think you're a teacher ( sorry , im new) you said somewhere that when we use " i would have ... ex liked" means that is not true. So if i want to say "why didnt you show me your work? i would have liked" is it wrong or does it mean im being false? Or was i nosy and misunderstood it all? Thanks in advance

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

Hello Mohd Zaffar,

Grammar determines how the sentence is formed but the communicative use of a sentence depends upon several things: the lexis (the vocabulary), the context and the speaker's intention as well as the grammar structure used. In your examples the key element is the particular item of vocabulary used: pray, advise and ask.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

1)She began to cry before I asked about her. She has began to cry before I asked about her. 2)She began to cry after I reprimanded her. She began to cry after I had reprimanded her. Which one is correct and please help me with more example.

Hello Mohd Zaffar,

The second sentence is incorrect because we do not mix a present perfect form ('has began') with a finished past time reference ('before I asked').

The other three are all possible. However, which is required will depend upon the context in which it is used. We can't provide long explanations of multiple forms like this in these comments sections. If you can describe the particular context for us then we can tell you which example would best fit, however.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

You write: We use the verb had and the past participle for the past perfect: I had finished the work. She had gone . Those are both sentences, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period. Neither sentence is past perfect. I said what I mean and I mean what I said. In the absence of context, NEITHER ONE is past perfect. .brad.wednesday.31may2017.

Hello bradvines,

Both of those sentences are past perfect. Past perfect is a term which describes a grammatical form, not a use or meaning. The context can determine whether that form is appropriate or not or whether or not it is used correctly, but the context does not change the grammatical form of the verb.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I'm trying to understand one of the examples you gave above; "They had been staying with us since the previous week." I thought the correct way of saying this would be - "They HAVE been staying with us since the previous week." - since this even is still ongoing? Please clarify! Thank you!

Hello ProEnglish,

If the speaker is speaking in the present then a present perfect form would be appropriate, as you say. However, if the sentence is part of a narrative (using narrative tenses) then the time reference is past and the past perfect would be appropriate. Context here determines which form is appropriate.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello! I have some questions. Even though I have a CAE certificate, I took the exam last year and was awarded an A grade, I still struggle quite a bit with Past Simple vs. Perfect tenses... If there are keywords mentioned I know perfectly well what to do and which tense to use, but in some cases I keep going back and forth between two options, doubting myself... I would greatly apprecite it if someone could tell me which of the following sentences are the correct ones, and why: -"My father was angry because he heard I hadn't come home till 3am." vs. "My father was angry because he had heard I hadn't come home till 3am." -"We already knew he was coming to visit." vs. "We had already known he was coming to visit." (I personally find it very unnatural to use the simple past tense with 'already') -"After I left a message, he immediately called me back." vs. "After I had left a message, he immediately called me back." (Is the simple past used twice here because of the word 'immediately' which indicates that the two events happen soon after another?" -"I had been watching that programme every week since it started." vs. "I hade been watching that programme every week since it had started." (past tense) -"I've been watching that programme ever since it started." vs. "I've been watching that programme ever since it has started." (present tense) Thank you in advance for any help you can provide. Best regards, confusedperfectionist

Hello confusedperfectionist,

It would take me a very long time to explain all of what you ask! I'll explain one of the pairs of sentences you ask about, and let's see if that helps you. If you want to ask us about another pair of sentences another day, then we can help with you with that, but for comprehensive analysis and practice of this, it might be a good idea to look for an English teacher to speak with.

Let's take your first pairs of sentences, about your father being angry. Both are correct and both describe the same event, but suggest a different perspective on it or a different situation. The first sentence could be used in many situations. The second one is a bit more specific because of the past perfect ('had heard'). The past perfect signals that your father heard about your late arrival before the moment in time in which he was angry. This is only logical, of course, but by using the past perfect tense, you make the sequence of him hearing the news and then him getting angry very clear. 

Your first sentence doesn't specify this sequence. Logic dictates that the sequence had to be this way, and so the sentence is intelligible, but the verb forms themselves do not indicate the sequence in the way that the second sentence does.

I hope that makes sense and that it helps you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Your first two sentences are both incorrect. "My father was angry because he heard I hadn't come home till 3am." should read, "My father was angry because he heard I DIDN'T come home till 3am" and demonstrates the very common "had-for-did" problem. That's all you should say and all you can say. Dropping 'had's in anywhere won't help you. (2) "My father was angry because he had heard I hadn't come home till 3am" should read, "My father was angry because he HEARD I DIDN'T come home till 3am" and demonstrates the most common 'had' error: putting 'had' in front of a regular past tense verb, in this case, 'heard'. Heard is a perfectly good past tense verb and doesn't need any help to do its job. The rule: "The word 'had' does not belong in front of any past tense verb in the English language." .brad.wednesday.31may2017.

Hello Brad,

Thanks for being so willing to help other users! We're always glad to see users helping each other, as both the helper and the helped can get so much out of it.

While I agree that the past simple is more common in the sentences you refer to, the past perfect is not incorrect. 'heard' is not only the past simple form of the verb 'hear', but also its 'past participle'. This means that 'had heard' is a correct past perfect form.

Thanks again.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Learn English! I have a question which has stumped me. I am an English teacher in Russia who is American, so I have come across some variances in the language...but this one is not simply a matter of a British or American usage. Searching your website only confirms my initial thoughts, but some insight would be most appreciated! In short, I came across since with present simple. "How long is it since you phoned your grandmother?" Immediately I told the class it SHOULD read "How long has it been since you phoned your grandmother?" I searched and searched for "since" with present simple, and I found one example of an original text with "How long is it since..." which was copyrighted 1846. Is this an archaic usage, or is it still valid in Britain? Thank you for your time.

Hello hospitalityman,

As a Brit myself I can tell you that this is quite common. A search for 'How long is it since' on an English language corpus such as this one will give you some examples, though this is primarily a form used in spoken English and so is under-represented in written texts.

I also did a search using a corpus of American English and found some examples there. The present perfect was used in most cases ('How long is it since you've...') but there were some examples with the past simple, including 'How long is it since the pain started?' and 'How long is it since your man passed away?'

One example I came across is probably familiar to you:

How long is it since Saruman bought you?

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi team, I've got these two sentences which I am not sure which tense to use : 1. Jack was born in 1900. He was influenced by his father who SPENT (or "had spent) years working in England. SInce this sentence is clearly about the past (story happened in 1900) so past tense " spent" makes sense to me. But if we look at the whole sentence, I also think past perfect "had spent " also makes sense as the act of spend had happended before the act of influence. 2. Mary moved into her house in 1985 and John had lived (or has lived) next door since he came to the area in 1980 Can I use either tense ? If past perfect is used, does it emphasis the fact the John had lived there before mary moved in ? And if present perfect is used, does it emphasis that he still lives there now ? thank you

Hello Widescreen,

It is often the case that more than one form is possible in a given sentence, particularly with regard to aspect (perfective and continuous). In your first example both the past simple and the past perfect are possible. Which is desired depends upon the context (which we do not have) and the speaker's intention (which we do not know). In general, the past perfect shows some relationship between a past even and an earlier event; the past simple shows simply two completed events in the past.

The same is true of the second example. The past pefect may be appropriate if the action being described (living in the house) was related in some way (influenced in some way) another event, either within the sentence or in the broader context. The same is true of the present perfect, but it would need to relate to the present, from the speaker's perspective. Again, this context is not known to us.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir. Could you please tell me if the following sentence is grammatically correct? It has to be with reported speech: "Which computer did you like best?" My mother asked my father. My mother asked my father which computer he had liked best. I wrote this last one (the reported sentence), but I'm not sure if it is correct, so I'll appreciate your help. Thanks in advance.

Hello Daniel H,

Yes, that is correct and is probably the best answer in general.

Just so you know, it's also possible to write it as '... which computer he liked best', though the meaning is a bit different. If you use the past perfect form, it views your father's evaluation of the computers at that past moment in time, i.e at the time he was in the computer store, he liked one the most.

If you use 'liked' instead of 'had liked', the time reference is not as specific. This could, for example, indicate that your father still likes one computer over the others now, some time after he visited the computer store.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello there, One of the above examples says 'Everything was wet. It had been raining for hours' Would it be correct if say 'Everything was wet. It was raining for hours' Thank you for your help. Kind Regards, SK