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

Hello shubhamgupta

In this context, 'have had (to process)' is in the present perfect and 'had (to process)' would be in the past simple. There is a difference in meaning between the two. If you use the present perfect, the time period began three or four days ago and includes today, at least up until the present moment. If you use the past simple, the time period began three or four days ago and doesn't include the present moment.

Without knowing the context or the writer's intended meaning, I couldn't say which is correct, though I can say it would more common to use the present perfect with the time adverbial 'in the last three or four days'. If a past simple were to be used here, it'd be more common to say something like 'from Wednesday to Friday' or something more specific, as saying 'in the last three or four days' is understood to include the moment of speaking.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

..........by the tremendous amount of data they HAVE had to process in last three or four days.
here we could have also used " they have been processing "
does it will make any difference ?
and sir ,how i have to decide that when we have to apply "have had"
or "have been "?
thanking you sir :)

Hello again shubhamgupta

Yes, 'they have been processing' would also work here. In 'they have had to process', the verb 'have had' (the present perfect form of 'have') is not expressing possession but rather obligation or need. For example, to say that children must go to school, we can say 'children have to go to school'.

In this case, 'the data they have had to process' could be rewritten as 'they have needed to process'. If you say 'they have been processing', it means something a little different -- it doesn't express a need or obligation, it just expresses what they have been doing.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

What are the differences between past perfect continuous and past continuous?

Hello Mehrdad87,

 

Past perfect forms describe an action in the past which happened before another action in the past, showing a connection between the two events of some kind.

Past continuous verbs describe an action in the past which was in progress around a point in time (or another action) in the past.

 

If you have a particular example in mind we'll be happy to comment on it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Why I can not comment in other sections/topics?

Hello Mehrdad87,

Most pages on LearnEnglish have comments sections but some do not. If you want to ask a question then use another page – try to find a page on a similar topic or language point so other users interested in the subject will see it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

sir ,i have to have you to clear something...this is like...

i had a car
i have had a car
what is the difference between them?

and second is this...
i told you he would take the girl.
i told you he will take the girl
here,what do these two tell about the sense???

Hello shubhamgupta,

I had a car tells us about a specific time, and there must be a reference to that time either in the sentence (I had a car in 2005 / I had a car when I was a student) or implied in the context.

I have had a car does not refer to a specific time (and it would be ungrammatical to provide one), but rather tells us about your life as a whole.

 

We would say I told you he woud take the girl when either the girl has already been taken or we have some information to tell us that it is certain.

We would say I told you he will take the girl when we still do not know if it will happen or not, and are reminding the other person of our prediction.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

a lot thanku sir for making me understand that nuance :) :) :)

Pages