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 AminulIslam.
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Thanks sir

Which one is correct?
Her sister told me that.....
a.she had done the assignment the previous day.

b.she had done the assignment .

c. she did the task yesterday.

Hello AminulIslam.
If I had to choose one answer, I'd probably choose a, but all three of those answers could be correct. It depends on what you want to say and on the context.
All the best
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir,

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

1.She is to see the movie.
2.She is to have seen the movie.
3.She was to see the movie.
4.She was to have seen the movie.

Thanking you in advance.

Hello Aniyanmon,
I'm afraid it's not possible for us to answer questions like this. We're always happy to provide explanations of the material on our pages, or to explain particular points or rules of English, to answer this question we would need to write detailed explanations of multiple sentences, showing how different contexts change the meanings of each example. In other words, we would need to produce something like a lesson for you in the comments section.
Please understand that we have many thousands of users on the site and deal with many comments every day.
The LearnEnglish Team

Ok sir I understand, thanks

Dear Sir,

Kindly tell me what changes that "is" and "has been" makes in the following sentences. Please explain it.

1 According to McMillan,  the most common cause of death is car accidents.

2. According to McMillan, the most common cause of death has been car accidents.

Thanks a lot in advance.

Hello Aniyanmon
'is' is in the present simple tense; 'has been' is in the present perfect ( 1 refers to a situation in general, as determined by the context. 2 refers to a more specific time period, from some moment in the past until the present.
All the best
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir,

I would like to know the exact meaning of the following sentences. What changes that "rely on", " is relying" and "has relied" make in the following sentences.

1.Commuters travelling to and from work rely on the safety and efficiency.

2.Commuters travelling to and from work is relying on the safety and efficiency.

3.Commuters travelling to and from work has relied on the safety and efficiency.

Thanking you