English grammar – Past perfect

Form

Past perfect:
Affirmative: had + verb 3 (past participle)
Negative: hadn’t + verb 3 (past participle)

Past perfect continuous:
Affirmative: had + been + present participle
Negative: hadn’t + been + present participle

Meaning

  1. Past perfect is used to talk about finished actions that happened before a certain time in the past.
    • I had finished lunch when they arrived.
    • You had left by the time they got here.
    • He didn’t want to come with us because he had already seen the film.
  2. Past perfect continuous is used to talk about longer actions or events that happened before or up to another action or event in the past.
    • He was tired because he had been playing football all day.
    • They ‘d been driving for three hours when the accident happened.
    • When I saw her I could see that she had been crying.
  3. When the action or event is more temporary we often use past perfect continuous. When it is more permanent we often use past perfect.
    • We found the house where my grandparents had lived. (past perfect)
    • We found a house where another family had been living for a few months. (past perfect continuous)

Additional points

  1. Some verbs are not normally used with past perfect continuous because they are not action verbs. believe, belong, depend, hate, know, like, love, mean, need, prefer, realise, suppose, want, understand.
    • I had known him for ten years when he got married – correct
    • I had been knowing him for ten years when he got married –incorrect
    • I had belonged to the tennis club for 25 years when I left – correct
    • I had been belonging to the tennis club for 25 years when I left –incorrect

Pronunciation

See the phonemic chart for IPA symbols used below.

  1. If had is not completely contracted, it is usually reduced to its weak form in affirmative sentences and questions, sometimes with elision and intrusion.

    • We had already arrived:
      /wiː həd/ or /wiːjəd/ (the /h/ sound is elided and the /j/ sound intrudes)
    • You had tried many times:
      /juː həd/ or /uːwəd/ (the /h/ sound is elided and the /w/ sound intrudes)
    • Had they eaten? /həd/
  2. Been is usually reduced to its weak form in past perfect continuous.
    • We’d been driving for a long time: /bɪn/

Related grammar points

Past Simple
Tense and aspect

2 teaching ideas and comments

  1. Carol

    I usually draw a timeline (a long one) on the board or on a big piece of paper. Then I invite students to write about the events that day. For example:

    Student A:
    7am: I had breakfast
    8am: I went to school
    12pm: I went back home
    13pm: I finished my homework
    15pm: I arrived for my English class

    Student B:
    8am: I had breakfast
    9am: I went to work
    15pm: I left work
    15:15pm: I arrived (late) for my class

    Then I model the first sentence:

    When student B had breakfast, student A had already had breakfast (or had already gone to school).

    Then students have to come up with other sentences using the information on the board. They can do it in pairs, comparing their days or even their lives! i.e. When I got married, you had already had 2 children….

  2. Yadegari

    I divide the class into two groups and give each group some sentences. The sentences for group 1 are the past simple and for group 2 the past perfect.

    Group 1 have sentences like…

    I was nervous before the flight.
    She was hungry.
    He was tired all day.

    Group 2 have sentences like…

    I hadn’t flown before.
    She hadn’t eaten for hours
    He hadn’t slept well last night.

    I ask one student from group 1 to read their sentence and a student from group 2 to finish it with a “because” sentence.

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