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 D8023,

We have a number of pages dealing with these verb forms in our main grammar section and in our Intermediate grammar section.

It's not really possible for us to provide long explanations in the comments sections, but if you have a particular example which you find confusing then we'll be happy to try to clarify it for you.



The LearnEnglish Team

for example this one:
They had been waiting long when the bus arrived-just a few minutes.
is this correct?

Hello D8023,

The past perfect is correct there, though the sentence has a small error You could say:

They had been waiting for a long time when the bus arrived.


They hadn't been waiting long when the bus arrived – just a few minutes.


The past perfect is used because the action (waiting) began in the past and continued up to another time in the past (the bus's arrival).


You could say the same thing about an action which began in the past (waiting) and continued up to the present (the moment of speaking). In this case you would use the present perfect:

They have been waiting for a long time (now).


They haven't been waiting long (yet) – just a few minutes.



The LearnEnglish Team

well, for example, this two. do they mean the same thing?
I was sorry when the factory closed. I had worked there since I left school.
I have worked here since I left school.

Hi D8023

In this case, only 'I had worked' (había trabajado) is the correct form (not 'have worked' -- he trabajado). The sequence of events is this: 1. you started working in the factory, 2. the factory closed, 3. you were sorry. By saying 'had worked', it's clear that your working there was before the factory closed and you were sorry.

If you said 'have worked', it suggests that you are still working there now. This doesn't make sense since earlier you said the factory already closed. If you said Estuve triste cuando la fábrica cerró. He trabajado ahí desde que dejé el colegio it would sound strange, right? It would sound the same way in English.

The present perfect always refers to or touches the present time in some way -- its reference point is the present--whereas the past perfect has a past time as a reference point.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

again i need assistance from u sir,, and this is like...

i was chatting with one of my friends
she said--- my phone was not with me ,it was with my roommate.
me---------- why you had even given your phone to her????

was my reply grammatically correct?
was the past perfect used here correct?
and if i was wrong then what should i would have said?

thank u sir

Hello shubhamgupta,

It's a little hard to tell without knowing the exact situation, but I think the past perfect or past simple could be used here. The woman is talking about a time in the past (not having the phone) and you are asking about something earlier which is related to this (giving the phone to her roommate)

My phone was not with me, it was with my roommate.

Why had you even given your phone to her? / Why did you even give your phone to her?



The LearnEnglish Team

a lot thanku sir :) :) :)

earlier RBI had infused 50000 crore into the economy.

is this right to say?

Hello shubhamgupta,

As far as I know, 'crore' isn't used much outside of South Asia. As someone who's spent some time there, I recognised that it was a term used in Indian English, but I'm not sure most native speakers would. I think 'inject' or some other word might also be more common than 'infuse', but I'm not really sure.

Hope this helps you.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team