Past perfect simple and continuous

by John June 21, 2021
Past Perfect Simple and Continuous

When do we use the past perfect simple and continuous tenses?

Learning English grammar can be difficult. Sometimes the more we learn, the more difficult it seems to get.

Don’t despair though, I am here to help you through it!

In today’s blog post we are going to learn exactly when and how to use the past perfect tenses.
If you haven’t checked out the previous post on the present perfect tenses , you might want to do that first.

Let’s continue.

Past perfect simple

Talking about the past can be tricky and which tense to use can leave our heads spinning.
Today we are going to put some doubts to bed and learn when to use the past perfect.

We use the past perfect to talk about an action that happened before another action in the past.
Think about when you started studying English, or when you moved to Dublin (or some other city).
Now think about an action that was completed before you started studying English or before you moved to Dublin.

“I had finished school when I started to study English”

“I had just graduated from college before I moved to Dublin”

In these sentences, we see that the underlined completed actions happened before something else in the past.

We use:   had + past participle to form the past perfect

“I had taken a shower when you rang me”

We can also use contractions so I had taken becomes I’d taken and so on.

It is important to note that we also emphasize that the action happened before the other action by using time expressions such as: before, when, after, until, by the time etc.

As we use these time expressions, we can also start the sentence with these words:

“When I had taken a shower, you rang me.”


Past perfect = ‘the past of the past’

It is important to remember that we only use the past perfect when we are thinking of a past action relative to another past action.  Let’s illustrate this with an example:

Your friend asks you:

What did you do yesterday?

You reply:

I got up early and cleaned my apartment. Then I went to the supermarket and bought some food. In the afternoon I had a small barbeque with some friends. Then we watched a movie.

Notice in this reply all the verbs are in the past simple tense. This is a typical way to respond to the question. We don’t need to use the past perfect. However, maybe your friend asks you another question:

Did you have a few beers with the barbeque?

You could reply:

No, I didn’t have any beers with the barbeque because I had drunk a few beers the night before.

In this reply we use the past perfect ‘had drunk’ because we are referring to a time before another past time – in this case the night before the barbeque.

We can think of the past perfect as ‘the past of the past’. Here are some more examples that illustrate this idea:

I didn’t go to the cinema with John (past) because I had already seen the movie twice (past of the past).

Sue just had a snack for dinner (past) because she had had a big lunch (past of the past).

Joe went to London last week. He didn’t visit the Tower of London (past) because he had been there before (past of the past).

Past perfect simple

We use subject + had + past participle to speak about one action which was completed before another action in the past

For Example: After she had eaten her dinner, she went for a walk.


To make questions with the past perfect simple we just reverse the subject and auxiliary verb have so:

“I had eaten” becomes “Had I eaten?”

Look at the following:

Had I worked?

Had you worked?

Had he/she worked?

Had it worked?

Had we worked?

Had you worked?

Had they worked?

To make the negative we just add ‘not’ to ‘had’: I hadn’t worked, you hadn’t worked etc.

Bring a friend to school

Test Yourself

Make sentences about things you had done/completed for these situations.

Example: When you finished school

Answer: I had decided to study Archaeology when I finished school

  1. Before you travelled to another country.
  2. When you turned 21.
  3. By the time you started driving.
  4. Before you had your first job.

Past perfect continuous

Now that we know when to use the past perfect simple, let’s talk about the past perfect continuous.

We use the past perfect continuous to speak about an action that started in the past and continued up to another point in the past, often to talk about the duration.

“I had been working in my job for 1 year when I decided to quit.”

This means that the person started working 1 year before they decided to quit and they were still working when they made this decision.

Take a look at some more examples:

“Joe had been waiting for 20 minutes when Sue arrived”

“Paul had been working for 6 hours when the computer broke”

“When the guests arrived, the chef had been cooking for 3 hours”

To form the past perfect continuous we use: Subject + had been + present participle

We can make a question by: Had + subject + been + present participle

To make a negative sentence we add notSubject + had not been + present participle

Imagine a situation where you are asking about your friend’s date:

Had you been waiting long when he arrived?”

“No, I hadn’t been waiting long. I had been sitting at the table for 5 minutes.”

Past perfect continuous

We use subject + had been + present participle to speak about the duration of an action up to a particular point in the past

For Example: We had been waiting for 2 hours when they arrived.

Test Yourself

Choose the correct form of the verb in brackets to complete the sentences.


Past perfect

1 / 9

John _________(go) out when I _______(arrive)

2 / 9

When they ________(arrive), we __________(already finish) eating

3 / 9

He ______(be) very tired because he _______(sleep) well

4 / 9

We ________ (have) our breakfast before we _________(go) to school.

5 / 9

I ____________(be) sleeping for 20 minutes when the TV _________(wake) me up.

6 / 9

I _________(eat) my breakfast when I ________(get) to school.

7 / 9

They ________(going out) for 12 months when he __________(propose)

8 / 9

We form the present perfect with

9 / 9

We form the past perfect continuous with

Your score is

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Despair: to lose hope

Tricky: difficult

Phrasal Verbs

To check out: To look at something

Example: Check out that Porche! The driver must be rich.


Leave someone’s head spinning: something that makes you confused

Example: The lesson was so difficult, it left my head spinning

Put something to bed: to resolve an issue

Example: The U.S are having a recount of the votes so they can finally put the issue about who is president to bed

Test Yourself

Complete sentences using vocabulary from this post.



1 / 5

Hey! __________ this email. Some stranger wants to send me 10 million euro and wants my bank details.

2 / 5

Covid is difficult for everyone but don't _________, have hope!

3 / 5

English grammar is a little bit ________.

4 / 5

Some people are so confusing, they often leave my head _________.

5 / 5

Is tea or coffee better? Let's take a vote and put this matter to _______.

Your score is

Did you enjoy this blog post? Would you like to know more? You’ll find more English grammar tips elsewhere on our site and if you’d like information on our English courses in Dublin, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Thank you for reading and feel free to leave a comment below.

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