Past perfect simple and continuous

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Past perfect simple and continuous are used to talk about an ‘earlier’ past when you are also talking about another (more recent) past situation.

In general terms, while both past perfect simple and continuous actions are finished, past perfect simple emphasises the ‘completion’ of the action and past perfect continuous emphasises the ‘length’ of that completed action.

TermThe past perfect simple
ExampleWhen I arrived at the office, my boss had already gone home.
Formhad + [3rd form]
Uses1. To talk about an action that happened at some point before another action in the past.

Example:

I saw John at the conference yesterday. It was not the first time – I had met him before.

2007: First time you met John
Yesterday: You saw John again
NOW: You are talking about the two times in the past when you met John.


TermThe past perfect continuous
ExampleIt was clear she had been crying when I saw her.
Formhad + been + [base verb] + ing
Uses1. To talk about a longer action that continued up until (or finished shortly before) another action in the past.

Example:

He had been driving for 6 hours without a break before he crashed the car.


4pm to 10pm: He was driving and didn’t take a break
10.01 pm: He crashed the car
NOW: You are talking about a longer action in the past (6 hours of driving without a break) that happened before another past action (the car crash).

Past perfect simple and continuous differences

Past perfect simplePast perfect continuous
To emphasise longer lasting or permanent situations.
The castle had stood for 500 years before the storm destroyed it. (though the past perfect continuous could be used here without any real difference in meaning)
To talk about more temporary past actions before another past event.His legs were tired because he had been standing for hours. (though past perfect simple could be used here without any real difference in meaning)
To emphasise the completion of an action before another action in the past. He had studied the chapter his teacher told him to, so he decided to take a break. (indicates the chapter was finished)
To emphasise the duration of the action before another action in the past. He had been studying the chapter all day, so decided to take a break. (indicates he stopped studying because he had studied for a long time that day – doesn’t confirm that he finished the chapter, we just know that he finished the action of studying)

Remember that some verbs are not used in the continuous form! e.g. stative verbs such as:

  • he had believed NOT he had been believing
  • it had tasted NOT it had been tasting
  • she had belonged NOT she had been belonging…. etc

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