I am having some confusion in learning Past Perfect continuous tense.

In my reading I come across some rules while constructing Past Perfect continuous tense. Which also differentiate this tense from Simple Past continues tense.

The Time / Duration

Past Perfect continuous indicates the activity which started in Past and end in the past or interrupted by some other action. And it has not implication in present.

E.g. I had been talking on mobile over an hour before Tony arrived. (Past Perfect Continues)

But Sometimes Time/Duration is not mentioned in the sentence construction which creates confusion in both tenses.

E.g. 1) I had been talking on phone before Tony arrived. 2) He had been in tension. 3) He had been writing the Letter. 4) That Plane had been descending. (See my below example for detail) 5) That Car had been approaching me.

My Question is that how and when exactly should I use past continuous tense in English if my understanding is wrong? As per my understanding Time duration should mention while constructing Past Perfect continues tense.

One more Question.

On May 6, a serious incident took place when an IndiGo Mumbai Jaipur flight, which was to take off from Mumbai airport’s runway 14, delayed its departure because of which a Jet Airways aircraft that had been descending and cleared to land on the same runway was forced to do a go-around at the last moment.

If I use was instead of had been will it change the scenario?

I.e. had been descending and was descending.

Thanks for reading my question please emplain in detail.

  • Suggested reading: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/13255/… Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 5:04
  • Thanks for the link. I have gone through it. But my question was about Past Perfect continuous and simple past continues. Should I always use time/Duration while constructing Past Perfect Continuous?
    – user4084
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 6:10
  • The criteria for Past Perfect Continuous vs. Simple Past Continuous are the same as those for Past Perfect vs. Simple Past. They are the criteria about time spheres. It's better (and simpler) to think of Continuous (or Progressive) as an aspect, not tense. Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 6:12

1 Answer 1


Obviously there's a lot of confusion around the perfect tense, and we could fill volumes with descriptions and explanations of how it's used. However the thing to bear in mind is that it is basically a present tense, where present refers to whatever point in time the speaker is in when he uses it. With that as a reference, the perfect covers a timespan from a point before that "present" and up to it.

I have been writing this letter for an hour.

Here the "present" is now, and the timespan began an hour ago.

I had been writing the letter when Tony arrived.

Here the "present" is the point in the past when Tony arrived and the timespan is an unspecified period before that point. It simply describes what was going on before and up until the point that Tony arrived.

With the present perfect, you can mention when an action began, but you can't use any temporal that would suggest that you're referring back to the event as a finished, completed action at any point in the past, because, remember, it is for all intents and purposes a "present" tense - so it always refers to now. So *I've seen him yesterday - doesn't work because yesterday is over. However you can say: I've seen him today - if today is still today when you say it. At the end of today, you would have to say, looking back, I saw him today. (This may not be so in British English - I couldn't tell you. They often use the present perfect where we use the simple past).

The past perfect is different in this respect; You can refer to an action that continued or was valid up until the referenced point in the past as a completed action: He had written a novel in 2013. It simply cites it as an accomplishment of sorts - an action that was completed by that point in time.

Using the progressive simply implies that it was a repeated or ongoing action:

He had been writing a letter

= this is what he was engaged in up until the point referenced in the account, but not a completed action.

Also note, that the perfect is open ended; the action is understood to have started at a point before, continued or been valid through to the point reference (now or then) and may or may not continue. That is why: I haven't seen him today = not yet, not so far... but I may still see him at some point before the day is over.

I realize this is probably a vague answer to your question - more of a general overview. If you have any specific points you'd like me to clarify, that I missed, please ask. I've been teaching the perfect to Russians for a year and have gotten pretty good at it :)

  • Thanks for the Answer. I have gone through it. But my question was about Past Perfect continuous and simple past continues. Should I always use time/Duration while constructing Past Perfect Continuous?
    – user4084
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 6:10
  • No you don't have give a timeframe for the past perfect continuous - it merely describes an action that was happening UP UNTIL the reference point: I had been writing the letter when Tony arrived - means that you were engaged in writing up until the time he arrived. Whereas - I had written the letter before Tony arrived - means that the letter was finished and you were not writing anymore when he arrived.
    – CocoPop
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 12:24

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .