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Also Known As: Past Perfect Progressive 

The past perfect continuous (also called past perfect progressive) is used to show that there was an action that started at a point in the past which continued in the past, then stopped at another point in the past.

It has a definitive starting point and a stopping point.

The past perfect continuous is formed using had + been + present participle. For example “She had been waiting for the bus for an hour when it finally arrived.”

To make a question with past perfect continuous, switch the subject and the verb “had.”

To make a negative statement with past perfect continuous add the word “not.”

For Example: 

  1. Statement: The girl had been waiting for the train for an hour when it finally arrived.
  2. Question: Had you been waiting for a long time when she arrived?
  3. Negative: No, she hadn’t been waiting that long when the train arrived.

This tense can seem tedious and many students ask when they would need to use it. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to say the same thing in another way? This is possibly true, but it is necessary to describe a set period of action in the past to indicate when the action first began and when it concluded. 

We use this tense when we are talking about an event that happened in the past and also concluded in the past. We use this tense to put both the start and the conclusion in the same sentence. 

To Form the Past Perfect Continuous

To form the past perfect continuous, we use “had been” and “when” to show that something started in the past at a definitive point and continued up until another specific set time in the past. So to form it you would start with a duration of time. “For a minute” and “for three years” are both durations of time. These time durations are important in forming past perfect continuous. The duration is used to form the past perfect continuous. The duration does not continue until now. It has to have already stopped in order to be past perfect continuous. 

So first the duration of time. Next it is used to describe the duration. This uses the past tense of the verb “have,” which is “had.” It combines it with the past tense of the verb “be” which is “been.” So you combine had + been + present participle. “She had been running.” 

When did she stop running? Why did she stop running? To add a stopping time (remember it must be specific) we add the word “when.” For example: 

She had been running regularly for two months when she broke her ankle.

“When she broke her ankle.” Indicates a specific stopping point and indicates why she stopped running. It is important to specify the duration in the past perfect continuous.
 

Statement Question Negative
She had been running regularly for two months when she broke her ankle.  Had she been running regularly when she broke her ankle? She had not been running regularly when she broke her ankle.
He had been waiting for two hours when the bus arrived. Had he been waiting a long time when the bus arrived? He had not been waiting long when the bus arrived.
She had been wanting to take classes for a couple years when she received the scholarship. Had she been wanting to take classes for a long time when she received the scholarship? She had not been wanting to take classes for a long time when she received the scholarship.

 

When To Use the Past Perfect Continuous

To Describe Something That Started and Finished In the Past

In this case, the past perfect continuous explains the duration of time that has passed. It is used to describe that the event started in the past and has already stopped happening and is often used to give context to why something stopped happening.  It can be used to describe past events that have now ended and why they ended.

Examples include:

Example: Explanation:
She had been running regularly until she broke her ankle. She had a good habit of running but then was stopped by an accident. 
We had been going to the store every week and then they started offering delivery. Weekly shopping was a routine until something changed that was more convenient.
He had been forgetting his keys regularly until he started putting them in a specific spot each time.  Forgetting your wallet is a bad habit, but he found a solution that helped him to stop.
How long had she been waiting for the bus when the bus finally arrived? Bus schedules are routine, but she was unexpectedly waiting a long time, but the situation was resolved.

 

Each of these describes an event that started in the past and each continued into the future for a period of time before stopping. None of these events are still in the process of happening now.


To Express A Change in Habit

The past perfect continuous tense is used to discuss the start of a habit from the past that has now stopped occurring:

I had been running in track every day when I was younger but I gave up when I left school. (Expresses an action that was a habit in the past but no longer is)

I had not been eating vegetables every day but now I love them. (Expresses a negative habit that has changed )

Had you been commuting every day into the city when you switched to working online? (Asking about a habit that has changed)

When I was younger I had been going to the park and playing football every day with my friends, but since we are adults we no longer have time to do this. (Indicates a long term habit that then stopped for some reason)

To Show Cause and Effect

Using the past perfect continuous to show something that started in the past and then stopped is a good way to show how something started and then stopped for a particular reason. It shows why something started and then the reason that it stopped. 

Examples:

Jason had been swimming every day but had to stop because the pool closed down for the winter.

Sam had been going to the gym every day but then it went bankrupt.

Betty had been attending classes every day but then she got really sick.

Jenny had been reading books every day until she started getting migraines.

 

Past Perfect Continuous Emphasizes Interrupted Actions

Past Perfect Continuous is used to demonstrate how something was interrupted. It is used to show how something that was occurring has stopped happening due to some sort of action that made it stop. So Past Perfect Continuous is often used to demonstrate how habits stopped happening. 

I had been saving for a house, but then was in a car accident and needed the money for a new car. (Interruption) 

I had been running every day but then broke my ankle. (Interruption) 

I had been eating healthy every day but then the holidays came. (Interruption)

Some Notes on Past Perfect Continous

Past Continous vs. Past Perfect Continuous

It is important to note that if you do not include a duration such as “for five minutes,” “for two weeks” or “since Friday,” many people may choose to use the past continuous rather than the past perfect continuous. 

It is important to take care when using these because this can change the meaning of the sentence. Past continuous emphasizes that the duration specifically interrupted the actions, while past perfect continuous places the emphasis on a duration of time that occurred that may or may not describe an interruption.

Past Perfect Continuous is used to describe interruptions, but it is not the focus of the sentence, the focus is instead on the duration itself.

 

Past continuous may not indicate the end of the duration. Past Perfect Continuous indicates that the event has stopped.  

For Example: 

He was fatigued because he was running so often.

This sentence emphasizes that he was tired because he was exercising at that exact moment. This is past continuous, not past perfect continuous, because the action has not definitely stopped. 

He had been sleeping too much because he been practicing for an ultra marathon. This indicates that when the marathon was over, the duration ended. It doesn’t indicate that he is still sleeping too much. 

Notes on Non-Continuous Verbs 

When using Past Perfect Continuous, it is important to keep in mind that non-continuous verbs do not appear in the continuous tenses. Continuous means that it is ongoing, and indicates an action that is taking place over a period of time. So non-continuous verbs would not appear in any sort of continuous sentence. Examples:

The house had been belonging to the Williams family for a decade before the Gallegos family bought it

This seems like it should work because it is talking about duration, but it doesn’t work because the verb is non-Continous. Instead, past perfect should be used. 

The house had belonged to the Williams family for a decade before the Gallegos family bought it

Past Perfect Continuous

Past Perfect Continuous can seem confusing at first, but when you think of it as a way to describe a duration of time that has stopped, it becomes much more simple.

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