The Past Perfect Continuous Tense

Many English learners see the past perfect and past perfect continuous as difficult tenses to use. A common tactic for learners (and even native speakers) to avoid using these tenses is to substitute them for simple past or past continuous. However, it is important to understand what makes these tenses distinct.

Let’s start with the basics:

The past perfect continuous (PPC) is mainly used to discuss an ongoing action in the past. The ongoing action is either completed or interrupted. The form of this tense is very simple.
 
Basic Form Affirmative Negative Question form Tag Question
had been + verb-ing

Example:
I had been driving












 
I had been driving.

Pronouns and ‘had’
can be contracted:
I’d, you’d, he’d,
she’d, etc.









 
I had not been driving.

Had not can be
contracted:
I hadn’t been
driving.









 
Yes/No Question:
Subject and ‘had’
switch position.

Had he been
driving?
Yes, he had.
No, he hadn’t.

Wh- Question:
A question word is
placed at the
beginning.

Where had he been
driving?
Positive sentence →
Negative Tag:
He had been driving,
hadn’t he? Yes, he had.
No, he hadn’t.

Negative sentence →
Positive Tag:
He hadn’t been
driving, had he?
Yes, he had.
No, he hadn’t.



 


Remember that ‘had’ does not change with the pronouns. Only the main verb (verb-ing) will be different.

Like the other continuous tenses, PPC does not use stative, or non-action, verbs. If you are using a stative verb, the tense should be past perfect.

I had been owning the guitar for six years. → I had owned the guitar for six years.

He had been seeing the sunrise this morning. → I had seen the sunrise this morning.

** Be careful of stative verbs used for different meanings.

I had been having a dog. (incorrect: stative verb ‘to own’)

I had been having fun. (correct: action verb ‘to experience’)



There are several time markers used in PPC.
 
For (a period of time) I had been driving for 3 hours.
Since (a specific time) I had been driving since 5am.
All (morning/afternoon/evening/night/day/week/month/year) I had been driving all day.
Before / When/By the time

 
I had been driving when I got a flat tire.
I had been driving before I stopped for food.
I had been driving all day by the time he called.


The function of PPC can be difficult to see, but they are important.
 
  • PPC is used to emphasize the length of a past action. In these instances, a sentence can be in both past perfect and PPC and the meaning is essentially the same.
  1. I had eaten lunch there for an hour.
  2. I had been eating lunch there for an hour.
  1. I had studied for the test all night.
  2. I had been studying for the test all night.

The duration of the action is more important with PPC, but the basic meaning has not changed.
 
  • We often see more than one time marker in PPC when the action is interrupted. The interrupting action is in the simple past.
    • I had been driving for 3 hours when I got a flat tire.
      (interrupted action) (interrupting action)
  1. I had been eating lunch when the rain started.
  2. They had been hiking for hours before I even arrived.
  3. My doctor had been working all day by the time I came in for my appointment.
  • The past action doesn’t always have to be interrupted. The PPC can also be used to show the results of a past action.
    1. Jessica passed her test because she had been studying for hours.
    2. John wasn’t looking well. He hadn’t been eating very healthily.
  • PPC is useful for showing the recency of actions. The ongoing action has been completed, or almost completed, and there is still evidence of it.
    1. John and Mary had been studying when I arrived. (I can see books and papers on the table)
    2. My mom had been baking all morning. (I can smell them. The oven is still warm)
    3. My roommate had been running before I came home. (He is wearing his running shoes and is very sweaty)
  • We can see a clear difference between past perfect and PPC when the past action is repeated.
    1. I had stolen money from my boss. (I stole one time)
    2. I had been stealing money from my boss. (I stole many times)
     
    1. I had driven my friend to the mall. (I give a ride once)
    2. I had been driving my friend to the mall. (I drove my friend regularly)
Note: Be very careful when the action is short and unrepeated. In these instances, PPC is difficult or impossible.
 
  1. Jack had broken his arm at the beach.
  2. Jack had been breaking his arm at the beach.
  1. Our neighbor had crashed his car over the weekend.
  2. Our neighbor had been crashing his car over the weekend.
Clearly, the PPC sentences do not make much sense here.