How To Use Past Perfect Tenses | SIMPLE or CONTINUOUS

Lesson Overview

Lesson Summary 

Do the Past Perfect Tenses confuse you? Wondering what’s the difference between the simple and continuous forms? Let’s practise!

In today’s English Grammar Lesson, I’ll go over the past perfect continuous usage, pronunciation & examples. PLUS we’ll compare the past perfect simple, so you know the differences and when you should use them!

As usual, there’s a QUIZ to help you practise at the end!

Video Transcript
Section 1
Welcome back to the mmmEnglish Youtube Channel, I’m your coach, Emma and today we’re going to focus on the language that you need to tell stories in English which is a fundamental communication skill, isn’t it?

When we tell stories, whether they’re based on real experiences or they’re made up stories to entertain others, we’re usually talking about something that happened in the past, a past event.

So knowing how to accurately use the past tenses is really useful but it’s also going to help you to tell stories in an interesting and engaging way. You might have seen narrative tenses in English textbooks.

So this refers to verb tenses that are used to talk about the past and help you to tell a story. So in this lesson today we are going to take a close look at the past perfect continuous and of course, I’m going to share the similarities and differences between this tense and the past perfect because they’re kind of similar.

Even though this is a grammar lesson, we’re going to do some pronunciation practice and have some fun along the way and make sure you stick with me to the end, I’ve got a mini quiz to help you practise everything you learn in this lesson. Let’s get to it!

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Now narrative tenses, like I said earlier is just another way to talk about the past tenses and so they include the past simple, the past continuous, the past perfect and the past perfect continuous. And a narrative is a spoken or a written account of connected events. A story.

And these tenses help us to give accurate information about how and when events happened in the past so the past perfect continuous gives us very specific information about the state of the action and when I say state, I’m talking about whether or not that action or that event has started, if it was in progress or it was complete at a particular moment in the past.


So it helps us to order our stories but it’ll be much easier if I show you an example so that you can see what I’m talking about.

  • Last week, I went for a bike ride. I saw my friend Paul.

So these two sentences are both written in the past simple, aren’t they? They’re completed actions. They’re finished.

When we put them on a timeline we can see that they both took place at some point in the past but we don’t know when or which one happened first, do we?

So by using a combination of narrative tenses, we can be more precise about how and when these actions took place so if we use the past perfect continuous, we’re going to bring our story to life.

  • I had been riding my bike when I saw my friend Paul.

So when I put one of these actions into the past perfect continuous, it becomes really clear that the bike riding started before I met Paul and at the moment in time when I met Paul the bike riding was incomplete. I hadn’t finished riding my bike when I saw Paul.

So the past perfect continuous describes an event, an event that started before a particular moment in time and it was still in progress at that time in the past.

Let’s look at another example.

  • She had been working in the garden when it started to rain.

So at that moment, at the moment it started to rain what was the state of the action working?

Had she finished working in the garden? No, when the rain started, the gardening or working in the garden was incomplete. There was still more work to be done. It wasn’t finished.

Now if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably already noticed what goes into a past perfect continuous sentence. They use the auxiliary verbs had and been along with the main verb which is in -ing form.

Let’s just go back to those original examples.

  • I had been riding my bike when I saw my friend Paul.
  • She had been working in the garden when it started to rain.

Now you can create negative sentences by putting not between had and being.

Had not been.

  • I had not been riding my bike.
  • She hadn’t been working in the garden.

So before we go any further why don’t you take a moment just to write a few sentences with this tense just to practise the structure, add them down into the comments below. I’ll be down there to review them and give a little bit of help if you need it.

And before we go any further in this lesson, I want to take a few moments to focus on your pronunciation to make sure that when you are using this tense you’re sounding natural and relaxed just like me or any other native English speaker and using contractions with the past perfect continuous is definitely going to help.

Now if you’ve watched my lesson about auxiliary verbs which is up here if you need it, you’ll know that auxiliary verbs are usually unstressed and it changes the way that they are spoken. They are usually connected to the subject in spoken English and that makes a contraction.

Auxiliary Verbs

In a past perfect continuous sentence, there are two auxiliary verbs had and being but had is the one that is contracted to the subject so it’s very natural to say I’d instead of I had, you’d instead of you had, she’d, he’d, we’d, they’d and the trickiest one, it’d. Try it.

  • It’d been raining all day.

Now the verb been is also an auxillary verb and although it doesn’t get contracted in the same way that had does, it’s also unstressed in spoken English so you won’t really hear people saying been, they had been here. What you’ll actually hear is been. Been with a short vowel sound.

  • I’d been doing the shopping.
  • You’d been listening to music.
  • He’d been cooking.
  • It’d been raining.

You get the idea.

Usually at this point I’d continue on and show you how all of these contractions sound in the negative form as well but I’ve got something that might come as a bit of a surprise.

The past perfect continuous is actually not very common in spoken English. It just sounds quite formal in spoken language, maybe it’s all of those auxiliary verbs so you’ll often hear people using the past continuous just to sound a little bit more natural.

Now if you really want to get some pronunciation practice with past perfect contractions, you can check out this lesson up here where I go into it in a lot more detail.

Common Mistakes

Okay so let’s talk about some of the most common mistakes that my students are making with this tense and actually, there are two of them the first one is using verbs that can’t be used in the continuous tense.

Yeah not all verbs can be used in the continuous tense like this sentence here, something’s not quite right about it.

The verb see just like other verbs of the senses like taste and smell, these are stative verbs and stative verbs describe a state of being rather than an action and usually they can’t be used in the continuous tense.

This sentence is going to sound so much better if we use an action verb instead.

  • I’d been watching the waves when I bumped into Paul.

Or if you really want to use the verb see then just switch the tense.

  • I saw the waves crashing into the shore and later I bumped into Paul.

The second mistake that I see my students making all of the time is this one.

  • She has been working in the garden when it started to rain.

Can you see what’s wrong with this one?

This is the present perfect continuous, the past perfect uses had. No matter what the subject is, we use had in the past perfect.

You’re used to conjugating verbs for the third person singular subjects in English: she, he and it but not with the past perfect. You only use had no matter what the subject.

Comparing the two tenses

You’re probably feeling pretty confident with this tense by now but you might be wondering: well how is this tense different from the past perfect simple?

Well there are three ways to compare these two tenses and I’m going to go through it right now. Are you ready?

The first difference to remember is that the past perfect shows a completed action whereas the past perfect continuous shows an incomplete action.

  • We had just been for a bike ride when we bumped into Paul.

Or we could also say:

  • We had been riding our bikes when we bumped into Paul.

So in the first example, we’re using the past perfect simple to explain that the bike ride was complete when we met Paul.

We’re not riding anymore the ride is over but in the second example, the past perfect continuous tells us that the bike ride is still in progress. It’s an incomplete action.

Is that clear? Good.

However both of these tenses can actually express a completed action, especially when we’re using them with the adverbs for and since which is really common in perfect tenses, isn’t it? Let’s have a look at an example.

  • I had been cleaning for hours to prepare for the party.

Or we could say:

  • I had cleaned for hours to prepare for the party.

The meaning is almost the same in both sentences but the emphasis shifts just ever so slightly because the past perfect continuous helps us to emphasise the duration or the length of the action, you know, I spent a long time cleaning and now finally the house is clean.

The past perfect sentence emphasises that the action is complete so I’ve finished cleaning and as a result, the house is ready for the party.

Now in reality, in many situations, you can use either the past perfect or the past perfect continuous and it’s just that subtle difference in meaning that makes your sentences a little more powerful.

Now the third difference that you need to be aware of is about how that action is viewed.

Is it a temporary action or is it a permanent one?

  • He had lived in London for five years.

Now in that sentence, we view the action as being permanent using the past perfect but compare that to:

  • He had been living in London for five years.

Now in that sentence, we view the action as being temporary. It’s so subtle. It’s not the meaning of the sentence that changes. Both of those sentences are correct, there’s just a teeny tiny shift in the way that we view the action, whether it’s temporary or it’s permanent.

Let me give you another example.

  • My brother had been working in a restaurant for two years when he decided to study medicine.

So I’m using the past perfect continuous here because I think of that job as being temporary.

Now, on the other hand, my brother would say:

  • I had worked in the restaurant industry for two years before I started studying medicine.

So he’s using the past perfect because he viewed that action that work as being permanent. He thought that that career would be a permanent one in the restaurant industry.

So you can see that there isn’t always a right or a wrong answer, sometimes it just comes down to emphasis or perception and the way that you choose to communicate your story.

The way that you choose to express something might actually be different to the way that someone else does and that’s okay.

All right I think it’s time for a quiz now. We’ve gone through how to accurately use the past perfect continuous tense. Now let’s practise actually using it together. I’m going to give you two events or two actions and both of these things have taken place in the past so all you need to do is join them together into one sentence and make sure you use the past perfect continuous.

So for example, the first event is we played football. This is the thing that was happening first but then something else happened. It started to rain.

So your answer could be:

  • We had been playing football when it started to rain.

Okay so now it’s your turn to write these sentences. I want you to write them down in the comments below so I can come down and check them for you, give you some feedback if you need them. I’m not going to go through the answers in this video.

So the first event: We waited for the bus for an hour.
And the second event: The bus finally arrived.

Hit pause if you need to, write your sentence down below.

Okay try this one.

First event: He worked at the supermarket for a long time.
Second event: One day he became the manager.

First event: They spent the whole afternoon cooking
Second event: but the dinner guests cancelled.

So how did you do? I hope that this lesson has helped to make the past perfect continuous a little clearer and hopefully, you feel a bit more comfortable using it now.

Another really great way for you to practise and become more familiar with this tense is through your writing. Even if it’s as simple and mundane as writing about what you did during the day, it’s an awesome opportunity to practise using narrative tenses to help you accurately tell the story of your day in order so that it’s clear when and how these events happened in relation to each other.

If you haven’t already subscribed to the channel yet, make sure you do, turn on notifications so that you know as soon as I’ve got a new lesson ready for you. I’ve got some really great grammar lessons coming up that are going to help you to improve your accuracy over the next several weeks. I’ll be back next week with a brand new lesson but while you’re waiting, why not check out this one right here?

I’ll see you in there!

Links mentioned in the video

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