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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Soumis par Mat0 le jeu 28/10/2021 - 18:22

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Hello,
I just gave a lesson on Past Perfect Continuous, and my student asked me why we don't use "didn't do" as a response, instead of "hadn't done"?
For example, "Sophie was tired because she hadn't been sleeping properly" as opposed to "Sophie was tired because she didn't sleep properly". My thoughts are, that the former example is talking over a longer period of time in the past, whereas the latter is just about last night.
I would be very happy if you could clear this up for me.
Many thanks,
Mat.

Hello Mat0,

I'm afraid I'm not completely sure I understand your question. What you say about the difference between the two sentences about Sophie is right -- the past perfect continuous form suggests that the sleeping problems have occurred on more than one night, whereas the second clearly expresses the idea of just one night.

What did you mean by 'didn't do' or 'hadn't done' as responses?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk,

Thank you for replying.

I realise my question is not completely clear, apologies for that.

If the question was "Why was Sophie tired?" then the response could be either of my two examples, is that right? It would just depend on if it happened more than once or just the one time that she had sleeping problems. The past perfect continuous would be used if the action was recent to the time of speaking too, correct?

The "do" or "done" is related to the action of sleeping. "She hadn't slept" or "she didn't sleep".

Many thanks,
Mat.

Hello Mat,

Thanks for clarifying your question. Yes, you have a good understanding of when to use which verb tense, though I would make one small adjustment: the past perfect continuous doesn't necessarily refer to a time that is recent in relation to the time of speaking, but rather recent in relation to the time of the other action (in this case, 'Sophie was tired').

For example, this sentence could be about events that occurred several years ago; 'hadn't been sleeping' then refers to Sophie's tiredness at that time several years ago, not to now.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sokhom le ven 06/08/2021 - 04:30

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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

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mar 25/05/2021 - 03:11

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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

Soumis par Ayn le jeu 26/11/2020 - 12:40

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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?

Soumis par Peter M. le sam 28/11/2020 - 07:56

En réponse à par Ayn

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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.)

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 30/11/2020 - 07:34

En réponse à par Ayn

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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

Soumis par TatianaZ le mar 24/11/2020 - 21:08

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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

Soumis par DaniWeebKage le lun 26/10/2020 - 10:29

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Dear Team, Thank You I've learned all the tenses. And I've mastered but I still have to go a little more to be a pro. But I have confusion about this phrase. #Last night, In my dream, I was arrested because I had robbed a shop and I was gone to jail. Then I woke up with full of sweat. After 5 mins, I realised that it all was just a dream. Does it correct Grammarly?

Soumis par DaniWeebKage le lun 26/10/2020 - 08:45

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Dear Team, It (hadn't been) raining all summer. So the grass was completely dead. When I opened the curtains the sun was shining and the ground was white. It (had been) snowing during the night. I've learned that Past.P. Continuous shows about reasons. In these two sentences, Should I use Past Perfect or Past Perfect Continuous?

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 27/10/2020 - 08:03

En réponse à par DaniWeebKage

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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.

 

 

Peter

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).'

 

Peter

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). 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.

 

Peter

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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mer 16/09/2020 - 22:31

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ankit Shrestha le ven 03/07/2020 - 11:28

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Why is it not - She didn't move. She lived in Liverpool all her life. Please reply.

Hello Anit Shrestha,

Both the past perfect (had lived) and the past simple (lived) are possible in this sentence.

However, if we use the past simple then we are describing two events which form a sequence and the reader or listener would understand that first she chose not to move and as a result spent her whole life in Liverpool.

If we use the past perfect then it is clear that the decision to not move comes after the act of living in the city. In other words we understand that she decided not to move because all her life up to that point had been in Liverpool, so she had an attachment to the city.

 

In other words, past simple + past simple here gives us two actions in sequence.

Past simple + past perfect makes it clear that the second action in the sentence happened before the first.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par angeeeeeeel le dim 28/06/2020 - 12:04

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Hello, when do we use "I had never had" ?

Hello angeeeeeeel,

There are so many situations in which 'I had never had' could be used that I can't possibly describe them all, but I'll give you one example sentence:

'I had never had butter in my tea before I went to Tibet.'

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par lexeus le sam 27/06/2020 - 20:00

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Starting at Ban Pong and crossing the bridge on the river Kwai in Kanchanaburi, the railway line had once snaked its way through two hundred and fifty miles of dense jungle to the town of Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Hi Team Could you help me with the sentence that I’ve posted? I have read that the past perfect tense goes with the simple past tense. Is that always the case? I think my sentence uses the past perfect (had once snaked) with a participle clause (or phrase, I’m not sure which). Firstly, is it a grammatically correct sentence? Secondly, is it grammatically acceptable to split ‘had snaked’ with ‘once’? (As in ‘had once snaked’) Thank you so much for your help. Lexeus

Hello Lexeus,

It's perfectly fine to put an adverb (once) between the auxilliary verb (had) and the past participle (snaked).

As far as the use of the past perfect in your example goes, it requires a past time reference point, but this may be included in the broader context in which the sentence appears. The use of the past perfect implies that the situation later (but still in the past) changed.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Dukul le sam 23/05/2020 - 13:28

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What is the difference in meaning between these following sentences: 1. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I had ever had. 2. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I ever had. 3. My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I have ever had.

Hello Dukul,

All of the sentences are grammatically possible. The first sentence suggests that the birthday was the worst day then, but may have since been superseded by something even worse. The second sentence tells us that the birthday is still the worst day and suggests that that fact will never change. The third sentence is similar to the second, but suggests that a worse day may still come along at some point.

 

In general, the choice of verb forms like this to use depends on the context in which you are going to use it and what you want to say. Is the sentence part of a narrative? Is it direct speech? Are there other events which form a context for the sentence?

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par stoopid__pollack le ven 15/05/2020 - 22:26

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Hello, could anyone please explain to me which grammatical rule (or rules) warrants the use of the past simple tense after 'since' in the sentence used in the explanatory section above: I had been watching that programme every week since it started, but I missed the last episode. Isn't the action of starting the programme earlier than my watching it. Why then the earlier action is expressed in the Past Simple and the action following it in the Past Perfect. This issue has been bothering me for some time now, and I sieved through some of my old grammar books and came across some other instances of this tense use, here they are: * We hardly recognized each other, because we hadn't met since we were young.(B.D. Graver. "Advanced English Practice. Oxford U. Press. 1990. page 85") * We all knew he had been drinking heavily since his wife died. (op. cit.) * He had been a soldier, since he was seventeen, and planned to stay in the army. (A.J. Thomson, A.V. Martinet. A Practical English Grammar, Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press, 2001. page 175) I also found a sentence which, I would say, is more along the lines of what I believe or imagine I know about the use of the Past Perfect: * His father had died four years before and since then Tom had lived alone. (Thomson, Martinet. p.176) By the way, can this sentence be transformed into the following one: "Tom had lived alone since his father died." I would like to know why the Past Simple is used in the above clauses after "since". The coursebooks I cited only mention that such a tenses sequence is possible with "for" and "since" and they don't delve deeper into the matter. Is it some kind of a language praxis? Why is the Past Simple use after "since" not in violation of the rule that the earlier actions are expressed in the Past Perfect, as this what I imagine is the case with the word "since", which underscores an action earlier in time? Sorry for all the mistakes I probably made. Thank you in advance for all the responses and explanations. Have a nice day.

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le jeu 14/05/2020 - 23:07

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Hello. Could you please help me? In the following sentence, can we use the past simple, the past perfect or both? Is there a difference? - Jane was not as good as her friends as she (had come - came) from a poorer family. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The past simple is the best option here as the verb does not describe a particular action but rather a permanent fact about Jane - something which will always be true and for which we would use the present simple normally, or the past simple in a narrative.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Anubhav le mar 03/12/2019 - 18:20

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Could anyone help me with the prepositions, which one is correct ..i am going to the wedding or i am going for the wedding.

Soumis par Parva le lun 25/11/2019 - 10:02

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What is the past perfect tense of ,"What shall we do?"

Hello Parva,

'Shall' is a modal verb and does not have a past perfect form. The perfect form of the modal would be 'should have', as in 'What should we have done?' but whether or not this is appropriate would depend on the context in which it is used.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Anubhav le ven 22/11/2019 - 10:24

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My question is related to the usage of "have had" , would it be correct to say -As if you could'nt be any taller, you have had to wear heels too Or would you rather say "you had to wear heels too". The above statement is a present scenario . Thanks

Hello Anubhav,

The correct form here would be ...you had to...

The meaning of had to here is similar to 'you chose to' or 'you insisted on' rather than expressing obligation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks .. I get it now .. Could you also explain in what scenarios one would you "have had to" instead of have to

Hello again Anubhav,

I can't think of a context in which 'As if...' would be followed by '...would have had to...'

We use [would have + VERB3] for hypothetical/unreal situations, but 'as if' is not used to introduce conditional forms. We use 'as if' in the same way as 'as though': to show not a condition followed by a result, but rather the ironic surprise of the speaker at something they consider unnecessary or exaggerated.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

My bad .. what i meant to ask was what's the meaning of "have had to" like in following sentences and what is the general usage of "have had to" 1.Market organizers have had to be creative. ...... Here why can't i say have to be creative 2.Blackpool’s Liam Feeney admits they have had to find different ways of winning.... why not they have to Thanks a lot

Hello Anubhav

'would have had' and 'have had' are not the same. 'have had' is the present perfect of 'have'. The present perfect and present forms have very similar meanings -- please see the Present tense section of our grammar reference and its different subpages for an explanation of the differences in meaning.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par stanraw88 le lun 07/10/2019 - 03:19

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Hello - so would this sentence be correct then: "I had skipped breakfast, which made me so hungry" ?

Hello stanraw88

The verb forms in the sentence you ask about are grammatically correct, though without knowing what the context is, I can't really say whether they are correct for the situation.

People often use 'so' in this way in informal speaking, but I would recommend changing it to something like 'really' instead.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Dayan le dim 06/10/2019 - 10:25

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I have a real problem to understand the use of before followed by the past perfect as in She bought a new car before she had sold the old one. By couldn't bought be a past perfect if it is the action that happened first?