The 'wonderful' world of the perfect tenses:
Past perfect and past perfect continuous
Is there an easy answer to what exactly are the perfect tenses in English?
Written by Roger Hartopp, adapted from his book Typical Errors in English, and from Advanced Grammar in Use by Martin Hewings
First, let’s remember that when we talk about a sequence of past events but in the correct order, we use the past tense:
I woke up, got dressed, ate breakfast, and drove to work.
Now the past perfect tense is used to describe a sequence of past events that are out of order, that is, events that happened before the last event in the sequence we have written or talked about.
You are telling a story now about a particular point in the past, and then adding all the events before that point. For example, yesterday, you arrived at the office for work at 9am. This is the starting point of your ‘story’, and any completed acts before that point that you describe – but not specifying when these happened – go into the past perfect. We use had + past participle:
I arrived at my office at 9am. Before that, I had woken up, (had) got dressed, (had) eaten breakfast and (had) driven to work. Note that the ‘hads’ marked in brackets () aren’t often used in conversation after the first example as it is clear what we’re talking about, so we’re just being economical with our speech.
Before entering the building, I had signed in, (had) got searched, (had been) asked several security questions, (had) spoken to many security staff, and (had) received a pass.
When we understand that we are talking about events before another past event, we don’t have to keep using the past perfect; we talk about them as if they were a separate sequence of events and not connected to that fixed past event, so we could say:
I arrived at my office at 9am. Before that, I woke up, got dressed, ate breakfast and drove to work.
Before entering the building, I had to sign in, got searched, asked several questions, spoke to many security staff, and received a pass.
The past perfect is often used in reporting what was originally said or thought in the present perfect or past simple:
I ate a dish of pierogi (She said she had eaten a dish of pierogi).
I have never seen him before (She explained that she had never seen him before).
There was an explosion at the factory. (It was reported that there had been an explosion at the factory).
The passive form of the past perfect is had + been + past participle:
By the time the police arrived, the bank had already been robbed. (But who robbed the bank is not stated)
Many people had been allowed into the complex before security stopped them. (Who allowed these people into the complex?)
But if we want to know the 'doer' or the 'actor' in the past perfect passive:
The hotel had been owned by several people before it closed down.
We can use the past perfect or past simple when we talk about things we intended to do, but didn’t, or won’t do so in the future:
We planned/we had planned to go to Spain, but COVID-19 stopped that.
We decided/we had decided to get married in March, but this was too soon.
They chose/had chosen the Mazarati for a new car, but after a week decided that it would be too expensive.
The past perfect is used in the third conditional to talk about a situation in the past which did not happen, but then imagining what we think would be the likely results if this act did happen. The construction is the if-clause: if + past perfect; main clause: would/could/might + have + past participle:
If I had taken the bus, I wouldn’t have been late. (But I did not take the bus, and as a consequence I am late.)
You could have been killed if you hadn’t worn your seatbelt! (But you wore your seatbelt, thank goodness!)
I wouldn't have been fired if I hadn't shouted at the boss! (He shouted at the boss, and now he's lost his job.)
It is also used in some mixed conditionals:
If I had bought that house ten years ago, I would be a millionaire now. (But I did not buy that house then, so I am not a millionaire now.)
If Brian had accepted the job offer, he would be working in Australia. (But Brian didn't accept the job offer and as a result is not going to work in Australia.)
Past perfect continuous (also known as the past perfect progressive)
This is used to describe an activity that was happening continuously before or up to a particular point in the past. (Remember, the past perfect is used when we talk about a finished activity before a past time.)
Julie arrived at your house yesterday (the start of your story), but she drove for six hours to get there:
When she arrived, she had been driving for six hours. We use had + been + –ing.
He had been painting the wall for an hour when he was told to change the colour.
But it is possible with some verbs (work, agree, live, drive, stay, study, teach, etc.) where we can use either the past perfect continuous or past perfect tense with a very similar meaning:
I’d been studying French for a long time, so I decided to stay in the country for a few months. (It was a good opportunity to stay in the country and use the language I was studying for a long time: the focus is on my studies)
I’d studied French for a long time, so I decided to stay in the country for a few months. (It was a good reason to stay in the country and use the language I studied for a long time: the focus is on my decision to stay)
She'd been working hard/she'd worked hard all her life, so she felt she deserved her retirement.
In my opinion, the company had been agreeing/had agreed to the new pay and conditions as the negotiations went on for some time, but then they changed their minds, much to the anger of the unions.
Now read this next bit carefully:
The past perfect continuous can be used to talk about a situation or activity that went on before a particular past time and finished at that time: On the way to her job interview, she’d been driving for only five minutes when the car had a problem.
It can be used if the situation continued beyond that time: She was very nervous just before the job interview after the problems she’d been having with the car earlier.
Or the situation finished shortly before that time: When I last saw Julie, she’d been worrying about her car as she was about to go to a job interview.
Remember that we don’t usually use stative (or state verbs) with the continuous forms. We would use the past perfect:
I had known her all my life as a kind person before she passed away (NOT I had been knowing her all my life).
BUT: I had been seeing her for some time before she told me she was married.
The past perfect continuous isn’t used very often when speaking, but is certainly used in written texts, particularly with newspapers:
Fred Smith, who had been suffering from depression for some time, finally took his life yesterday. (From a point in the past Fred continually suffered from depression, and this ended when he chose to end his life)
We don't normally use the past perfect continuous in the passive form - see future perfect/perfect continuous tenses in the passive.