Definitive Guide To The Past Perfect Continuous Tense

The past perfect continuous is one of 12 verb tenses in English. It’s a tense that talks about the past, in the past. Sometimes, it’s all called the past perfect progressive.

Past perfect continuous tenses tell us about an action that happened in the past and continued to happen in the past; in this way, it's continuous. This tense tells us how long an action took place and how long it continued on for.

In this article, we’ll explain each function of the past perfect progressive and give you plenty of examples along the way so you can see how this tense functions in English.

Past perfect continuous examples

What Is The Past Perfect Continuous Used For?

  • When talking about something you did in the past that ended in the past, for example, I had been walking…
  • When telling a story about a past continued action. You’ll see adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions such as 'when', 'since', and 'for.' These words give us extra context and add to the story.
  • The past perfect continuous tells us when an action finished in the past. In English, adverbs of time are used to do this. Such as hour, day, morning, etc.
  • When talking about the cause of another action. The past perfect progressive allows us to see the effect of another action that took place before. For example, John was tired because he had been hiking for 5 hours.

To form the past perfect continuous, we use ‘had’ and ‘been’ plus the present continuous form of a verb with -ing.

  • I had been waiting for over 2 hours when he finally arrived.

The past perfect continuous tense can be affirmative, negative, interrogative affirmative, or even interrogative negative. Let’s take a look at each one now!

Past Perfect Continuous Affirmative Tense

The affirmative statement is positive when the action confirms another one. In the past, perfect continuous allows us to confirm the previous action to see the cause.

The past perfect continuous in affirmative is formed like this:

Subject + had/have (past participle of to have) + been + present participle verb + -ing 

For example:

  • She had been running.
  • Gerry had been shopping when her phone rang with the bad news.
  • They had been thinking about buying a house for a long time when their daughter won the lottery.
  • Frankie had been loitering around in the toilets when the school bell rang.
  • Her water bottle was empty because she had been drinking it.
  • We had been waiting in line for hours before we were let in.

Past Perfect Continuous Negative Tense

The past perfect continuous negative has a similar structure to the affirmative. However, instead of confirming the action, it negates it or shows a negative side to it.

The past perfect continuous in negative is formed like this:

Subject + had (past participle of to have) + -not  + been + present participle verb + -ing

To make the sentence shorter, you can use contractions.

  • Had not becomes hadn’t

For example:

  • She hadn’t been running today.
  • We hadn’t been shopping for groceries, so the refrigerator was empty.
  • I hadn’t been doing my homework, so I’m not surprised I got a bad grade.
  • They hadn’t been playing for very long, so they didn’t want to go inside.
  • He hadn’t been working out in a couple of months, so he signed up for swimming classes.
  • The ground was wet. It had been raining for a couple of hours.

Past Perfect Continuous Interrogative Affirmative Tense

Interrogative statements ask questions and always have a question mark at the end. In the affirmative, the question is positive. The form is also slightly different. Let’s take a look.

Had/have (past participle of to have) + subject  + been + present participle verb + -ing + ?

For example:

  • Had you been running before?
  • Had you been waiting all day for her to come?
  • Had she been laughing when the bird stole her sandwich?
  • Had she been sleeping when the fire alarm went off?
  • Had they been talking when the car crashed?

Past Perfect Continuous Interrogative Negative Tense

The past perfect continuous negative interrogative tense is also used to ask questions, but we add -not. Like this:

Had/have (past participle of to have) + -not - subject  + been + present participle verb + -ing + ?

For example:

  • Hadn’t you been eating when she rang?
  • Hadn’t they been traveling when Covid-19 hit?
  • Hadn’t we been giving her money before she went off to college?
  • Hadn’t it been boring waiting for so long?
  • Hadn’t you been studying at the time?

Past Perfect Continuous Tense Vs. Past Perfect

Many people confuse the past perfect continuous with the past perfect simple. However, there are a few key differences when using them.

Past Perfect

The past perfect tense refers to an action that started in the past and finished in the past and doesn’t have a continuous form. For example:

  • The carpenters had built the table.

Whereas the past perfect continuous would say,

  • The carpenters had been building the table when it collapsed.

The past perfect refers to the ending of an action. In this case, the table is built, whereas the past perfect continuous focuses on the ongoing action: the table collapsed as they were working on it.

Verbs Without A Continuous Form

Not all verbs have a continuous form. This is because they are stative verbs, not action verbs.

For example:

  • Be
  • Cost
  • Love
  • Known
  • Have
  • Hate

With these and other stative verbs, it’s better to use the past perfect simple.

The past perfect continuous tense is a great tense to learn. If you’re after more grammar help or need to work on your vocabulary, why not check out our page? We’ve got tons of learning tools to help you along the way!

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