Past perfect continuous

The past perfect continuous (also known as the past perfect progressive) is used to show that an action began in the past and continued to another time in the past. It is usually used to say how long that action had been in progress for, but it can also be used to say that an action caused a noticeable result in the past. This explanation also includes the difference between the past perfect and the past perfect continuous. You can download this guide, as well as a number of past perfect continuous grammar activities, in PDF format using the links at the bottom of this page.

How to form the past perfect continuous

Actions that were in progress before another time in the past

We use the past perfect continuous to say an action or activity was in progress before another time in the past. If the past time is not known by the other person, we can state this using completed times in the past or with a time clause using the simple past. This is slightly different to the past continuous, which is used to show an action in progress at the specific time in the past, rather than before it.

The past perfect continuous is often used to state the duration of a past action was in progress before another time in the past. To state the duration, we can use for, since and all:

  • I had been waiting for two hours when the doctor eventually saw me.
  • They had been living together for five years before they split up.
  • I’d been thinking about what you said since the last time we spoke.
  • Jamie had been working for the government since 1989 when he decided to retire last year.
  • Rachel hadn’t been feeling well all week, so she went to the doctor.
  • They’d been stealing cars all year before the police caught them.

Note: If the focus of the sentence is on quantity, use the past perfect:

  • She’d been sending five emails when I last checked. She’d sent five emails when I last checked.
  • We’d been visiting Rome twice before my birthday. We’d visited Rome twice before my birthday.
  • They had been winning the cup seven times before their latest victory. They had won the cup seven times before their latest victory.

Note: The past perfect continuous shows that an action continued up to a time in the past. If the action had already finished before the time in the past, use the past perfect:

  • She had been writing the report for hours before the deadline. (She was writing the report up until the deadline.)
  • She had written the report before the deadline. (She completed writing the report before the deadline.)
  • My company had been making a lot of money before the covid pandemic began. (the company was still making a lot of money up to the point when the covid pandemic began)
  • My company had made a lot of money before the covid pandemic began. (the company had already made a lot of money before the covid pandemic began)

The cause of something in the past

We can use the past perfect continuous to show the cause of something that happened in the past:

  • She was upset because she had been arguing with her boyfriend.
  • Fiona felt sick because she had been eating so much chocolate.
  • Stanley was fired because he had been arriving late every day.
  • Her eyes were red as she had been crying.

A noticeable result in the past

We can use the past perfect continuous to show that a past action caused a noticeable result at a later time in the past. This is usually something you can sense (see, smell, feel, etc).

  • The room stunk of alcohol. Somebody had been drinking the night before.
  • He had been gardening so his hands were dirty.
  • The car was covered in mud. She had been off-roading in the countryside.
  • The house was in disarray. The kids had been playing all day.

Stative verbs

We don’t use any continuous tenses when we are talking about states:

  • I had been knowing him for five years before he became famous. I had known him for five years before he became famous.
  • We had been having that car for seven months before we sold it. We had had that car for seven months before we sold it.
  • They had been belonging to that church for two years before it closed. They had belonged to that church for two years before it closed.

Download worksheets

Click on the links below to download a PDF version of this guide as well as a number of past perfect continuous activities:

Past perfect continuous – grammar explanation

Present perfect continuous activities:

Past perfect continuous activity – speaking practice
Past perfect continuous activity – sentence structure
Past perfect continuous activity – past perfect vs past perfect continuous