Guide to Past Perfect and Past Perfect Continuous

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The two most advanced tenses in the past are the past perfect and past perfect continuous. There are slight differences between these two tenses, but both are used to speak about actions that occur before another point in time in the past. Intermediate level English learners can study the basic structures below, and then use the activities provided below. Teachers can print out and use materials in-class to help students acquire these two complicated tenses.

There are also a number of lessons referenced below that focus on comprehension materials for both of these tenses. Finally, teachers can get ideas and tips from these guides to teaching the past perfect and past perfect continuous.

Past Perfect

There are two past tenses used to describe things that happen before another point in time in the past. Use the past perfect to talk about an event which had happened at some point in time before something took place.

Tom had interviewed five times before he got his first job.
She had already eaten by the time they arrived.

Past Perfect Continuous

The past perfect continuous is used to express how long something had been going on before something important happened in the past.

Jane had been studying for four hours when he came home.
Jack had been driving four over six hours when he finally pulled over to have lunch.

Past Perfect Structure


Subject + had + past participle

I, You, He, She, We, They had finished before I arrived.


Subject + had + not (hadn't) + past participle

I, You, He, She, We, They hadn't eaten before he finished the job.


Question word + had + subject + past participle

What -> had he, she, you, we, they thought before I asked the question?

Past Perfect Continuous Structure


Subject + had + been + verb + ing

I, You, He, She, We, They had been working for two hours when she telephoned.


Subject + had + not (hadn't) + been + verb + ing

I, You, He, She, We, They hadn't been paying attention for long when he asked the question.


Question word (often 'How long') + had + been + subject + verb + ing

How long -> had he, she, you, we, they been working before he arrived?

Study the Past Perfect and Past Perfect Continuous in Depth

Here are detailed guides to the past perfect and the past perfect continuous tenses. Each guide provides situations, common time expressions used with the tense, as well as examples.

This guide is for choosing between using simple perfect forms or continuous perfect forms (present perfect, past perfect, future perfect vs present perfect continuous, past perfect continuous, future perfect continuous) is perfect for advanced level students looking to understand the fine points of these tenses.

The past unreal (3rd) conditional also uses the past perfect form.

Test Your Knowledge of Past Perfect and Past Perfect Continuous

Once you've studied the rules - or if you already know the rules - test your knowledge:

Past Forms Review Quiz
Conditional Forms Quiz

Teach a Lesson about the Past Simple and Past Continuous

Here are lessons on the site which have elements of the lesson which focus on the past perfect simple or past perfect continuous and their use with other tenses.

Tense Identification Review - Integration Lesson for Upper-Level Students​
A Difficult Situation - Using Modal Verbs of Probability in the Past
Multinationals - Help or Hindrance? - use of past perfect/continuous to in debate lessons to provide context
Guilty! - communication lesson using a variety of past tenses
Sentence Auctions - students try to decide whether a sentence is a genuine masterpiece worth buying, includes examples of past perfect.

Activities with the Past Perfect Simple and Past Perfect Continuous

Some activities that will help you practice:

Waiting for a Friend - Advanced past and future forms (future continuous, 3rd conditional, etc.)
English Tenses Timeline Chart - study how the past perfect and past perfect continuous relate to other tenses on a timeline.

Grammar Tools and Games

Auxiliary Verbs for Past Tenses

Irregular Verbs - Examples Sentences in All Tenses