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 the cat.
  • 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


Dear Sir,

I have seen the following question and answer in a spoken English book. Kindly tell me whether the answer of the question is correct. As far as I know "should have" is used as an advice. For example "You should have gone there". It is used in past situations. But in the following answer "should have" is used in a future situation. How is it possible sir?. So can I say now "today evening I should have left this place" (suppose now the time is 10 'o clock in the morning).

Que:Will you have passed tenth class examination by the next year?

Ans:Yes, I should have passed it by that time.

Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

We're happy to help you, but please remember two important things: 1) we ask that you try to ask your question on a relevant page and 2) we don't promise to explain grammar from other sources.

It's easy to find a page on modal verbs or modals with 'have', for example.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Kirk Sir, thanks a lot.

Hello, I'm ever sorry to bother, but I got confused a little.
Let's Imagine that yesterday I went to a club and I'm telling my buddie a story.
A) " Listen, from the momemt I had entered, she had not taken her eyes off of me. But then, suddenly, she got up and approached me. "
B) " From the moment I had moved to London, I hadn't had a friend. I was alone then. "

Hello Coffin Dodger

You can use the past perfect like that. People often use the past simple instead of the past perfect when that is possible. That is the case here, i.e. you could use the past simple in place of the past perfect in all of those verbs.

If you had a different questions, please let us know.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot Kirk Sir for your clarification.

My query is this Sir, I have come across this only sentence, 'It was the first time they had met/ met.' which tense to use, had met or met, only?

Hello Garry301

Both are possible, but if I had to choose one, I'd say 'had met'.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for the answer. but if situation is, 'It was the first time they had met, in the garden'. is it right?

Hello again Garry301

Saying 'in the garden' doesn't change anything. As before, I would suggest using 'had met', but 'met' is not wrong.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team