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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, Sir!
Could you tell me what the difference between the two sentences is?
1. Where had she been when you called her?
2. Where had she gone when you called her?

If I am asked the question with the past perfect, should I answer with the past perfect or past simple?
For example:
A: How had you met your wife when you fell in love with her?
B: I helped / had helped her when she fell off her bike.
Thank you in advance, sir.
Best Wishes!

Hello Sokhom,

The verb 'go' has two past participles: been and gone. The difference is as follows:

She's been to the shop. [she went there and returned]

She's gone to the shop. [she's not here as she is still in the shop]

The difference is the same for bother present and past perfect. Thus, the difference between the two sentences is as follows:

1.You are asking about something in her past, such as her experience of travelling.

2. You are asking about her location at the time of the phone call because presumably she was not there when you called (she had gone out).

 

Which verb form you use in the reply to a question is really context-dependent so it's not possible to give you a general rule. Note that we only use the past perfect when there is a clear connection - often a causal connection - between two past events. In your example I don't see any connection - they are simply two events. You might use the past perfect if the connection is clearer:

How long had you known Susie before you fell in love with her?

I'd known her for six years as a friend before I fell for her!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Which tense or both are correct in the following sentence ? Why? I'm confused!

- (Did you wait - Had you waited) until the car had been checked before you returned home?

Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

In most cases the past simple form is the best one here. The car was checked before you returned home, or perhaps while you were waiting and then you returned home. 

In a very specific context, it could be possible to use the past perfect form, but it would be referring to some other past event that the context would explain. I'd need more information to make sense of it in that case.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello!
Which one is correct?
A)When I saw him, he was hungry. He hadn't eaten anything all day.
B)When I saw him, he was hungry. He hadn't been eating anything all day.
I thought that B is correct, because all day makes the meaning of contunity in the sentence, but the answer is A. I am confused, can you help please?

Hello Ayn,

Neither option is wrong, grammatically speaking, but I think A is better. This is because we are interested in the result of the lack of eating (i.e. being hungry), not the ongoing process of not eating.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks.
But we can also use the past perfect continuous to focus on the result of the action, can't we? (That's why I chose B.)

Hello again Ayn,

As I said, both sentences are possible. However, when we focus on the result of an action (as opposed to the consequences of the activity) the simple form is more likely. Compare:

She had read the book. [she can tell you how it ends]

She had been reading the book. [her eyes were tired]

You can see 'not eating/being hungry' in either way, of course, but I think the simple form is the best and most natural-sounding option.

 

I wrote an answer to a similar question a little earlier on another page. You may find it helpful:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-intermediate/present-perfect-simple-and-continuous#comment-161833

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello! I have a question about using the Past Perfect tense in the following sentences. " I kept stopping to wait for him to catch up. Then when we had arrived at school, he would push my bike home again." Why does the author use "had arrived" here? Thank you

Hello TatianaZ,

Here the past perfect shows a clear sequence of actions, i.e. that he pushed my bike home after we arrived at school. But in this and many cases, the past perfect is not completely necessary; you could say 'arrived' and it would mean the same thing.

Does that make sense?

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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