Grammar Reference

Past perfect continuous

Meaning and use

We use the past perfect continuous to describe an action or situation that was happening over a period of time up to another past event or point in time. It is often used to give background information.

  • I had been living in London for two years when I met Alice.
  • I’d been waiting for two hours before the bus arrived.

We often use it with the past simple. The past perfect continuous is always used for the action that happened or started happening earlier.

  • He had a headache because he had been listening to loud music.
  • Silvia had been sleeping for three hours when her mother woke her up.

However, the events in the sentence do not have to appear in the order they happened. The earlier event can come second.

  • Before I met Alice, I had been living in London for two years. (the earlier event appears later in the sentence)
  • I had been living in London for two years before I met Alice. (the earlier event appears first in the sentence)

The past perfect continuous can be used with a relative clause:

  • Jack ran the marathon in 2014, for which he had been training since 2010.

 …or with a time conjunction:

  •  After I had been swimming for an hour, I was so cold I had to stop.

The past perfect continuous can also be used to give reasons:

  • I was exhausted when I got home because I had been training the whole morning.

Take note: past perfect continuous versus past perfect simple

For activities that continue for a long time (work, run, sleep…), we can often use the simple or continuous forms of the past perfect.

  • Patrick felt refreshed because he had slept all afternoon.
  • Patrick felt refreshed because he had been sleeping all day.

If the earlier action has been completed, then we use the past perfect.

  • I’d already cooked supper when Jan got home.

If the earlier action is incomplete, then we use the past perfect continuous. This focuses on the process or how long the action continued, rather than the end result.

  • The children had been playing in the park for hours when they suddenly realised that it was dark.

We use the past perfect simple if we say how many times something happened up to a particular time in the past.

  • He had read the book three times.
  • He had cycled two kilometres before he realised he had a puncture.


The past perfect continuous is made with:

subject + had/hadn’t + been + -ing form of verb


  • John went to the doctor because hed been having trouble sleeping.


  • We hadn’t been waiting long when the taxi arrived.


Present perfect continuous questions are made with:

Had (not) + subject + been + -ing form of verb

  • Had you been drinking when you fell off your bike?

Take note: Pronouncing the past perfect continuous

In informal writing and in speech, we often use a contraction with the auxiliary verb in the past perfect continuous:

  • They’d been watching television for two hours when their parents returned.
  • I felt dizzy because I hadn’t been drinking enough water during the race..

When you listen to someone using the negative form hadn’t, listen carefully. It is sometimes difficult to hear the difference between had and hadn’t, but it makes a big difference in meaning!