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 again Zhao

Although it used to be more common to use 'would' as a way of saying 'wanted', in modern English, it is very rare to use it in this way. Instead, what most people would understand here is the idea of a regular or habitual past activity (imagine, for example, that John lives in Amsterdam, but went to London every August to see the sights). Maybe that is what you meant, but I don't have enough context to know.

Sentence 2 could express the idea of an accidental meeting, or it could also express a planned meeting.

Sentence 3 is very odd unless it is framed by reported speech. For example, if you changed it to 'John told me that he had met his friend when he was sightseeing in London' then it would be fine.

Hope this helps. Have you tried reading stories in English? It's can be very useful to read stories to get a sense for how the different tenses are used. If this interests you, there are a few in our Stories section.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Sir

Thx for your insight comments.

I just would like to double confirm with you for that

>>Instead, what most people would understand here is the idea of a regular or habitual past activity (imagine, for example, that John lives in Amsterdam, but went to London every August to see the sights).

Do you mean it is common to use "would do sth" to express the meaning of the past regular or habitual behavior ?


Hello again Zhao

I'm not sure I would say that it is common -- as we also often say 'used to + verb' or the past simple to speak about past regular or habitual behaviour -- but 'would' is also a form that people use sometimes for the same purpose.

In other words, it is perfectly correct, it's just not an extremely commonly-used form. But you can use it and fluent speakers of English would have no trouble understanding it. Using 'would' to mean 'wanted', on the other hand, is used so little that I would not recommend using it at all.

See the Past events and situations section on our Talking about the past page for more on this.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

I would like to know which of the following expressions exactly say I have become a fan of boxer Mr.Tyson Fury after his impressive win over Mr.Schwarz (happened four days ago). Earlier I didn't like him.

I have been a fan of Tyson Fury.

I am a fan of Tyson Fury.

Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

Neither one clearly expresses what you explain. I would probably just say what you said in your explanation, but you could also say something like 'I am now a fan of Tyson Fury' or 'I have become a fan after that fight'.

Hope that helps.

Best wishes


The LearnEnglish Team

Kirk Sir,

Thanks a lot for your help.

Dear sir,

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

1.I have been able to speak English.
2.I have been able to study well.

Actually what do the above sentences mean? Can I speak English now? Could I study well?.

Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

It's difficult to say without at least knowing the context, but, for example, 1 could be something an English student said. For example, imagine one of my Spanish students went to study in the UK and I visited him there after he'd been there a few weeks. He might say something like 1 to me to refer to his time in the UK.

Knowing exactly what 2 means is also context dependent. Maybe someone who lives in a noisy house full of people would say this. Or it could be someone who's been ill and didn't expect to be able to concentrate. In either case, they are speaking about a period of time that began sometime in the past and which has just finished or is still continuing at the moment of speaking.

You can see more examples of this on our Present perfect page.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk Sir,

Thanks a lot. You have explained exactly.

Dear sir,

I would like to know if these sentences are correct or not.

Initially, he had suffered from arthritis for 3 days.
A month later, his symptoms had not improved.
Today, he is still in pain.

Thank you sir.