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


Sir, your explanation is fantastic. Thanks a lot

Dear Sir,

I would like you ask you the meaning of the following sentence

1. John might have failed the test but he was lucky and passed it.

Is this sentence right, if yes, kindly tell me it's meaning

Thank you in advance

Hello Aniyanmon,

The sentence is correct.

We can use might have to describe something that was a possibility in the past. Your sentence means that there was a chance of not passing but in the end John was successful.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter sir, Thank you for clarifying the doubt

To respected Peter.M,

A couple of months back you cleared
a doubt of another person. He asked you which of the following sentence is right

1.I lived in Kurdistan for two years
2. I have lived in Kurdistan for two years

You answered as follows

In the first sentence 'lived' the speaker no longer lives in Kurdistan. In the second sentence the speaker still lives there.

The past simple describes finished actions or states in the past. The present perfect links a past action or state to the present.

Sir, I have been working in a government department since 2003. My doubt is can I say " I have joined the department in 2003". As you said "The present perfect links a past action or state to the present". Yes still now I am working in the same department. So I believe that the usage of " have" is right in the above sentence. Humbly request you to clarify my doubt.

Thanking you in advance

Hello Aniyanmon

I hope you don't mind me answering for Peter. In this case, it would not be correct to say 'I have joined the department in 2003' because the action of joining the department happened in the past and only in the past. 'join' refers only to the first moment that you become part of a group and isn't used afterwards to refer to being a part of it.

Does that make sense?

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for help sir

Dear sir,

Kindly advise me to write the following
matter grammatically :

"Certified that Shi.Albert had attended his duty from 01/01/2019 to 28/02/2019 except holidays.

This certificate is issued to be produced before the District Medical Officer of Health, Idukki"

Sir, is the usage of " had" in the above sentence is right

Hello Aniyanmon,

I think the past simple is required here rather than the past perfect:

Shi.Albert attended his duty



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you sir