What is the difference in meaning between the two examples below?

  1. When she returned home from office, she was shocked to see that her husband and daughter were missing. (Simple Past)

  2. When she returned home from office, she was shocked to see that her husband and daughter had been missing. (Past Perfect)

FIRST QUESTION: For me example #1 gives only idea of Status of her missing husband and daughter and example #2 gives idea of completed action/situation of missing husband and daughter before she reached home. Is this right?

SECOND QUESTION: Is example #2 past perfect or past perfect continuous?

  • 2
    @MaulikV Actually, people aren't supposed to make edits that invalidate existing answers in the first place...
    – user230
    May 5, 2015 at 9:47
  • 1
    @F.E. The question first asked 'past perfect' in a broader way. After the edit, it asked (which it should have earlier), the past perfect continuous. The difference between 'simple past' and 'past perfect continuous' is what I felt should have mentioned earlier. And, I did not know that you edited it. If you have and not OP, then my comment is invalid! :) If you see, I did not addressed you in the comment, I thought OP changed his mind. I thought you might have fixed some grammar. Said that, I'm now deleting my comment.
    – Maulik V
    May 6, 2015 at 4:29
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of When is the past perfect exactly needed?
    – user20792
    Nov 6, 2015 at 0:00

2 Answers 2


The difference is that your Sentence 1 expresses a complete thought.

But your Sentence 2 is incomplete (expresses an incomplete thought). For Sentence 2 to be complete, you need to specify some time in the past that is previous to the time that the subject she returned home. For example:

Sentence 3

When she returned home from the office, she was shocked to see that her husband and daughter had been missing since noon or since Tuesday or for an hour or for a month.

All four of these past times are previous to the time the subject she returned home.

Unless you specify some past time, the sentence is incomplete in thought.

And yes, had been missing is past perfect continuous.


Answer 1: Your assumption is correct!

Answer 2: It's past perfect continuous.

To use past perfect continuous, try to understand past prefect first.

We use past perfect to show that the event occurred before something happened in the past. Here, they went missing, but if you want to show that 'missing' happened before her coming (which is also in the past), we use exactly the way you have quoted the sentence. We may call it as an 'early past'.

When she returned home.... her husband and daughter had been missing.

I'm pasting a useful portion from the British Council page for learning English.

Let's see two sentences

  • John left the house at 7:30 yesterday morning.

  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday.

Both actions happened in the past, so we use the past simple tense. But look at how we can combine the sentences:

Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday, but John had already left the house.

We use the past perfect (had left) because the action happened before another action in the past (Mary rang the doorbell).

Look at some more examples of the past perfect:

  • When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine, she realised she had washed the cat.

  • I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together, but we’d lost touch with each other.

The past perfect is used because they were at school before he received the letter. It refers to an earlier past.

Past perfect continuous just adds '-ing' verb to the past perfect. More on this topic here.

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