Do you know how to use phrases like she had left, he hadn't studied and we had been waiting?

When we talk about something that happened in the past we sometimes want to refer back to something that happened before that time. We can use the past perfect tense (had + past participle) to do this.


Look at these two sentences.


  • John left the house at 7:30 yesterday morning.
  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday.

Both actions happened in the past so we use the past simple tense. But look at how we can combine the sentences.

  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday but John had already left the house.

We use the past perfect (had left) because the action happened before another action in the past (Mary rang the doorbell.)

Look at some more examples of the past perfect.

  • When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine she realised she had washed someone else's laundry.
  • I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together but we’d lost touch with each other.

The past perfect is used because they were at school before he received the letter. It refers to an earlier past.

Look at these 2 sentences.

  • James had cooked breakfast when we got up.
  • James cooked breakfast when we got up.

In the first sentence, the past perfect tells us that James cooked breakfast before we got up. In the second sentence, first we got up and then James cooked breakfast.

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect can also be used in the continuous.

  • I realised I had been working too hard so I decided to have a holiday.
  • By the time Jane arrived we had been waiting for 3 hours.

The most common mistake with the past perfect is to overuse it or to use it simply because we are talking about a time in the distant past.

For example we would not say

The Romans had spoken Latin

but rather

The Romans spoke Latin

because it simply describes a past event, and not an event before and relevant to another past event.

Remember that we only use the past perfect when we want to refer to a past that is earlier than another time in the narrative.



Language level

Intermediate: B1


PLEASE, change the example with the cat because it's very offensive. Who can put a cat in a washing machine? It's CRUELTY and I am sure it's a very painful and awful death, murder by the way. Something like that doesn't happen unintentionally. This kind of example is very bad and here is a website for education and not for learn types of kill someone. I am sorry about my message but I had studied here when I just read this and it's shocked me.

Hello govegan

We are currently revising the Intermediate grammar section and this page will be changing quite soon. It's difficult to speculate on the intentions of the people involved and although it's more likely than not that washing the cat was unintentional, I agree that the sentence shows poor taste and so I have changed it. Thanks very much for pointing it out to us and I'm sorry about that.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

Which is right?
The medium of instruction was (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. (If we use "was" - will that deny the current reality?)
The The medium of instruction is (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University.
Thank you,

Hello kingson

The first one is correct since the 'when' clause makes it clear that the sentence is only about the past. I would recommend taking out the comma, though.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Your firm and precise answers make me to think a lot. Thank you so much.

I am, again, a little bit confused about the use of the past tenses in this example:
"The film started before Thomas had arrived" If "start" is the acction that happens first and "arrived" is the acction that happens later, why not saying: "The film had started before Thomas arrived" because he arrived late and the film had already started.
Thank yoy in advance.

Hello mara,

This is a similar example to the earlier one you posted. As I said in that answer, we sometimes use the past perfect for actions which are not completed.

For example:

The film had started before Thomas arrived.

In this sentence the sequence of the actions is clear: first the film started and then Thomas arrived. Both actions happened.


However, if we want to talk about something which did not happen, or which was not complete, then we use the past perfect with before:

The film started before Thomas had arrived.

Here we understand that one action (Thomas arriving) did not happen, or was not complete.


It may help to think about this as a structure related to what is sometimes called the third conditional. The past perfect is describing something which is not real, or not complete, just as in a past hypothetical conditional sentence.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter.
I have now a clear idea about these uses of the past perfect. The connection with the third conditional is really illustrative and helpful.
Thanks a lot

Is "she had done the dishes before I got home" right? Would be glad if someone answered

Hello Giudg1,

Yes, that is perfectly fine, grammatically.



The LearnEnglish Team