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.

NOTE
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.

 

Exercise

Language level

Intermediate: B1

Comments

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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk. You have actually answered my question. So sorry I didn't write it. I was sleepy then. But, I still wanna know more about this can-or-cannot-use-Past-Simple-instead-of-Past-perfect thing. Is there a topic about it? Please let me know.
Thanks a lot.

Hello Coffin Dodger

No worries! There is a very detailed explanation of this issue on this page (see Walter's post) and I think that should help you. Please let me know, though, if you have any other specific question about this.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again Kirk!
Thanks for the link. I've read it all!
If I understand correctly, we can use Past Simple instead of Past Perfect when we have words that specify the order of the sentence, so the sequence of actions is clear.
For example
- I turned my computer on before It fell from the table. (Correct)
- I had turned my computer on before it fell from the table. (Correct, but not necessary.)
But still, even if it's not necessary, Past Perfect gives a greater sense of time than past simple alone, right? And It's not always possible to replace it with P.S. When we talk about experience for example.
She had never driven a car before she turned 18. (Correct)
She never drove a car before she turned 18(not correct).

Is it right? Let me know. And thank you so much.

Hello Coffin Dodger

Great, I'm glad that helped, and yes, it sounds to me as if you've understood this very well.

Just one comment about your last two sentences. I would always use the first of those two, but I'm sure you could hear many native speakers use the second one. So I'm not sure I'd say that it's incorrect, but the first one is certainly clearer and therefore better in general. It's the form I'd recommend anyone use.

All the best

Kirk

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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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