Past Perfect Progressive Tense in English Grammar

Introduction

The past perfect progressive, also past perfect continuous, is used for actions that were in progress shortly before or up to a certain past time. It emphasises the process of an action rather than the completion. It is similar to the present perfect progressive tense but is used to express past actions. We form this tense with had + been + present participle or -ing form of the main verb.

Learn how and when to use in the past perfect progressive in English grammar with Lingolia’s grammar rules. In the interactive exercises, you can test your knowledge.

Example

I went to visit Louise the other day. She had been practising the flute for hours when I arrived.

Louise looked very tired because she had been practising for so long.

The piece is very difficult and although Louise had been practising it for a long time, she still hadn’t mastered it.

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Usage

We use the past perfect progressive tense to express the following:

  • an action that started before a certain time in the past and was interrupted by a second action
    Example:
    Louise had been practising for hours when Mark knocked on the door.
  • an action that started and ended before a certain time in the past but the effect of this action was still important at that moment
    Example:
    When I saw Louise, she was tired because she had been practising all day.
  • an action that started before a certain time in the past and wasn’t completed at that time
    Example:
    She had been practising for a very long time, but she still hadn’t mastered the piece.

Past Perfect Simple or Progressive?

Sometimes, we can use the past perfect instead of the past perfect progressive without completely changing the meaning of the sentence, instead, we change the focus of the sentence from the duration of an action to its completion.

Example:
Louise had been practising for an hour.

Focus is on the duration of the action.

Louise had practised for an hour.

Focus is on the completion of the action.

Conjugation of English Past Perfect Progressive Tense

To conjugate the past perfect progressive tense in English grammar, we need the auxiliary verbs have and be in the past participle: had + been + present participle or -ing form of the main verb. The table below provides an overview of conjugations of the present perfect progressive in positive, negative and interrogative sentences.

positivenegativequestion
all forms are the same I had been speaking I had not been speaking Had I been speaking?

Exceptions

The present participle is generally formed by adding -ing to the base form of a verb. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule:

  • An -e at the end of the word is removed, but -ee, -oe and -ye remain unchanged.
    Example:
    come – coming
    but: agree – agreeing
  • The final consonant is doubled in words that have a short stressed vowel before the final consonant. However, -w, -x and -y are not doubled.
    Example:
    sit – sitting
    but: mix – mixing
  • An -l as a final consonant after a vowel is always doubled in British English but not in American English.
    Example:
    travel – travelling (British)
    traveling (American)
  • An -ie at the end of the word is replaced with a -y
    Example:
    lie – lying

Contractions

Contractions are a combination of certain pronouns, verbs and the word not. They are mostly used in spoken and informal written English. The table below provides an overview of contractions in the past perfect progressive tense using the verb had.

long formcontractionexample
had …’d they’d
had not …’d not/… hadn’t I’d not/I hadn’t

Negated Contractions

In written English, we usually form contractions with a pronoun and an auxiliary verb, but not with a noun and an auxiliary verb.

Example:
She’d not been practising for a long time.
(but not: The girl’d/Louise’d not been practising for a long time.)

Negated contractions, formed with an auxiliary verb and not, can be used after nouns as well as pronouns.

Example:
She hadn’t been practising for a long time.
The girl/Louise hadn’t been practising for a long time.

Signal Words

Signal words can help us to recognise the tense in a sentence. The signal words for the past perfect progressive are:

  • for …, since …
  • the whole day, all day

To Note

The signal words for the past perfect progressive are the same as those for the present perfect progressive. The difference is that the signal words for the past perfect progressive refer to the past, not the present.

Past Perfect Progressive in Spoken English

We don’t use the past perfect progressive often in spoken English – it is much more common in written texts. Therefore, native English speakers prefer to rephrase a sentence slightly in order to use simpler tenses.

Example:
Louise had been practising for hours when Mark knocked on the door. (past perfect progressive)
Louise was practising when Mark knocked on the door. (past progressive)

If we leave out the duration of an action, we can use the past progressive instead of the past perfect progressive.