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


Hi there
I wanted to ask a question about vocabulary how to improve it, and i have Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis can i use this book for vocabulary particularly for IELTS. For me its taking too long 3 to 4hrs per day learn new words.

Hello omprakash,

I'd recommend you read our advice on learning vocabulary on our Help page. Our MyWordBook 2 and IELTS Word Power apps are designed to help with vocabulary acquisition and TakeIELTS has an app called 1001 ways that might also be of interest to you.

By the way, please try to post your comments on a relevant page. For example, this comment would make much more sense on our IELTS or Vocabulary Games pages.

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team


can we write sentence like below if not why plz explain

All the books is belonging to me

Hello Ayub ali khan,

We'll be happy to answer your question but please post it on a relevant page - this is a page about the past perfect, not the present continuous. Posting questions on relevant pages helps other users find the information.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi there! Is it possible to combine past perfect and past continuous in one sentence?
Ex. I had slept when someone was turning on and off the lights.

Thank you in advance.

Hello moonshadow1008,

It is possible, but not in this way. The past perfect shows an action at a time before another action in the past which is in some way related to it. The second action needs to be on ongoing activity for the continuous to be appropriate, which means it need a quite particular context. For example:

I had forgotten that she was walking home.

I had already finished the exam but she was still writing it.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter. Thank you for your response. I am a little confuse though. In what particular context can we use past continuous with past perfect? Could you explain further? Is there a certain name for that context?

Thank you.

Hi moodshadow1008,

I'm not sure what else I can say - the answer I gave gives as clear a definition as I can:

The past perfect shows an action at a time before another action in the past; the second action needs to be on ongoing activity for the continuous to be appropriate.

It also provides two examples. There is no name for the context - it is just a logical context for the meanings of the tenses.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

..hi can someone clear my mind about when do we use to/for?? please send me more examples.thanks

Hi iamginalynlopez,

These words are used in a great variety of ways, far too many for me to list here! You can see definitions and examples in our Cambridge Dictionaries Online (just type the word into the search window and click 'Look it up!'). If you have any particular examples you'd like to ask about then we'll be happy to try to explain them for you.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team