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The Past Perfect Continuous Tense

1. What is the past perfect continuous tense?

The past perfect continuous is used for:

1. showing how long an event happened before another event
2. giving a reason for a past state

2. Past before past

It is important to remember that past perfect continuous sentences have two events:
1. Past Event 1 (past tense)
2. Past Event 2 (past continuous)

Past Event 2 leads to Past Event 1.
Past Event 2 is not finished (or is just finished) when Past Event 1 happens.

Past event 2 (continuous)Past event 1 (past)Full sentence
I had been running for 30 minutesit started to rainI had been running for 30 minutes when it started to rain.
She had been working on the project for three monthsthe boss stopped itShe had been working on the project for three months before the boss stopped it.

3. How to make the past perfect continuous tense

The past perfect continuous tense is:
had been …ing

To make past perfect continuous sentences, use:
1. had been …ing (+ duration) + past event
2. had been …ing (+ duration) + past state

*Duration is not always needed. However, it is very common.

Past event 2 (had been …ing)DurationPast event 1Full sentence
He had been waitingfor an hourshe arrivedHe had been waiting for an hour before she arrived.
They had been playing footballfor an hourtheir mother called them in to dinnerThey had been playing football for an hour when their mother called them in to dinner.
Past event 2 (had been …ing)DurationPast stateFull sentence
They had been playing footballfor an hourthey were tiredThey had been playing football for an hour so they were tired.
He had been waitingfor an hourhe was angryHe was angry because he had been waiting for an hour.

4. Past perfect continuous vs. past continuous

The past continuous (was …ing) is more common than the past perfect continuous (had been …ing).

However, if saying how long an action happened, people usually use the past perfect continuous.

Past perfectPast perfect continuous
They were living in America when they learnt English.They had been living in America for 2 years before they learnt English.
It was raining when she turned up.It had been raining for an hour by the time she turned up.

5. Important notes: stative verbs

Stative verbs are verbs that tell a true state.
They include know, have, own, and like.

Stative verbs do not generally take the continous tense.
Therefore they do not generally take the past perfect continuous tense (had been …ing). Instead, they generally use the past perfect (had + p.p.).

CorrectIncorrect
I had known him for 3 years before we got marriedI had been knowing him for 3 years before we got married.
I had had long hair for 2 years before I got it cut.I had been having long hair for 2 years before I got it cut.

6. Exercises

  1. Answer these questions using the past perfect continuous:
    (i) How long have you been learning English?
    (ii) How long have you been living in your current house?
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