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


Hello kingsonselvaraj,
That sentence is not correct as the past perfect needs a second past time for reference. This can be implied by the context rather than stated explicitly, but it is necessary. Without this, we simply use the past tense (simple or continuous):
> He records what happened in ancient times
It is possible to have a present tense with the past perfect, but only if there is a second past tense for reference. For example:
> I know what you had done - incorrect without any other past time reference in the context
> I know what you had done before she arrived - correct
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Peter. It is very useful.

Dear sir,

I would like to know the meaning of the following sentences.

1.The building has been completed now for 5 years.

2. His mother has been cancer free now for 5 years.

What I could understand from the above sentences is "that building was built 5 years ago" and "five years ago she had cancer. Am I right?. Enlighten me on this.

Hello Aniyanmon
Yes, that is correct (with respect to both sentences).
All the best
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi! Are both of these sentences accepted in British English (both formal and informal)?
If not, which of them is accepted?
I had eaten before you came.
I ate before you came.

Hi stew,
Both sentences are grammatically possible.
The first sentence ('had eaten') would be used as part of a narrative. Imagine the speaker is talking to a friend about an earlier time when the friend came to visit.
For example:
A: Remember last weekend when I came to see you? I offered you a slice of pizza and you didn't want it. Why not?
B: Because I had eaten before you came.
The second sentence ('ate') would be used in other situations. Imagine this time that A arrives with a pizza:
A: Hi there. I've got a pizza. Do you want a piece?
B: No thanks, I ate before you came.
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir M peter

I have some confusion about using time conjunction -before and after.
which one is correct and why?
1.He will come after she goes.
2.He will come after she has gone.

would you please mention all uses of before and after as a conjunction.

my last question is.. Before can be used in future perfect? please give some examples.

Hello AminulIslam.
Please do not post comments more than once! We generally answer one comment per user per day.
All the best
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir,

I would like to know the exact difference in the meaning of the following sentences. Actually what difference that "get" and "is" make in the following sentences.

1.He gets infected with viral infection.

2.He is infected with viral infection.

Thanking you in advance.

Hello Aniyanmon
'gets' speaks about a process, i.e. the process by which he becomes infected, whereas 'is' speaks about a state, i.e. his condition at a particular moment in time.
Please note it's unusual to use the present simple with 'get' to speak about a specific person at a specific time. You could say 'People often get infected due to inadequate hygiene' (which speaks about a general process) but to speak about a specific person, you'd need to say either 'He got infected due to inadequate hygiene' or 'He is likely to get infected' or 'He may get infected'.
All the best
The LearnEnglish Team