The difference between past perfect simple and past perfect progressive

Students always ask what is the difference between the past perfect and past perfect progressive? I would like to share with you some differences based on my knowledge. We use the past perfect for remote times or when something happens once before the recent event and we use the past perfect progressive when something happened frequently (repeated actions) or was in progress over a long period of time.

Let us look at some examples to understand this better:

The past perfect simple

We form the past perfect simple with had and past participle

I had gone to that place when I was a child. This example shows a remote time when I was a child. I do not need a comma if I start the sentence with past perfect and past simple.

When we got to the cinema, the film had already started. This example shows one recent event before the other. I need a comma to separate the two clauses. Let’s look at these two clauses:

When we got to the cinema – past simple

The film had already started – past perfect

Which one happened first? It is clear that the film started before we arrived so this part of the sentence needs to be in the past perfect tense.

We can also write “The film had already started when we got to the cinema”, there is no comma here. It is important that they are separated by a comma when we use the past simple first.

Here are some more examples:

When we arrived at the airport, the plane had already left.

(The plane left first and we have 2 clauses so the clause containing the earlier event is in the past perfect)

Now study the next few examples:

When we got to the party, they had already eaten all the food (they ate all the food before we arrived)

Once we reached the concert venue, they had already sold the tickets (they sold the tickets before we arrived)

When she arrived home, her husband had cooked lunch (her husband cooked lunch before she arrived)

The past perfect progressive

We use the past perfect progressive when something was in progress for a long time in the past or happened frequently (repeated actions in the past over a long duration)

We form the past perfect progressive with had been + ing

They had been writing that article for a long time. The time expression “for a long time” indicates a long period of time (they spent a long time writing)

Something was in progress for a long time, but it is now completely finished. This is why we use “HAD”.

They had been working on that project for weeks before they completed it.

My parents had been going to the same hotel every year before they decided to change it.

The adverb BEFORE is a time expression which helps us to understand that it was something which happened before another action.

In the above example, it was routine for my parents to go to the same hotel every year in the past but NOW they are going to stay in another one. We can see that they went to the same hotel several times in the past. This is an example of repeated actions or habits.

Now try to do lots of exercises typing in esl past perfect simple vs past perfect progressive and try to write something using these tenses. You can use the grammar checker on the home page to verify if they are correct or ask a language teacher.

When you read a book or listen to natives, you will be able to understand why sometimes they use the past perfect and other times the past perfect progressive.

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