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

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.
~
Peter
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
Kirk
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
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir,

Thanks a lot

I have one query regarding the past perfect tense usage.
Here is a passage in which I want to talk about notes written in a library book by previous borrower. Check the passage and let me know whether I have used past perfect correctly or not. (here at the end of this sentence should I put a question mark ?? )

"It usually happens that while reading a book you come across a new friend. This friend is the one whom you may never meet in person. He is the person who had borrowed this book a long time ago and written notes in the book you are presently reading."

Hello RAVI DESAI,
The past perfect in your text is fine. It describes an action before another action in the past which is relevant to the later action. However, the other action should be past simple (wrote) rather than a past participle (written).
It would be fine to have both verbs in the past simple.
There are some other issues with articles, in the text. However, LearnEnglish is a site for language explanation, not proof reading or text correction.
~
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Sir, sorry to say you are not approving my comments. but why? I am eager to learn English so make comment on this site. For kind information I am not a native speaker.

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