I know have been does, but does had been also imply some ongoing action?

Do these mean the same?

"I just wanted to make sure it was you because I had/have been getting weird emails."

Can had been imply that you are still getting some since it doesn't really say anything about you not getting any more weird emails?

"If you asked him to do the chores, he should be doing them right now, since he had/has decided to help you out more."

Can both "had decided" and "have decided" imply that his decision is still current? Or do you have to choose one thing over the other? I think present perfect would be wrong in these examples, but I'm not sure if past perfect will imply the same meaning.

  • There's no particular implication of "ongoing action" in past perfect - "I didn't know at the time that he had been killed". Commented May 31, 2013 at 14:17

2 Answers 2


If you write

I asked about that yesterday because I have been getting weird emails.

have been getting implies that you got them in the past and continue to get them today, when you are writing. Obviously, it does not imply that you will continue to get them in the future. It is silent on that point.

If you write

I asked about that yesterday because I had been getting weird emails.

had been getting implies that you got them in the past and continued to get them up to the point yesterday when you asked. It does not imply that you continued to get them after that point—today, for instance. It is silent on that point.

?If you asked him to do the chores, he should be doing them right now, since he had/has decided to help you out more.

This is a complicated and, frankly, awkward sentence. In the first place, if and decided feel wrong to me: if seems to question your interlocutor's account, and surely you should be talking about promises, not decisions?

In the second place, your three clauses create odd tensual shifts. This is ordinary in conversation, where you speak off the top of the head, improvising from point to point; but in conversation your hearer knows the context, so you don't have to worry about making the tenses coherent.

So I'm going to ignore the first clause, and change decided to promised:

He should be doing the chores right now, since he ?has/had promised to help you out more.

In this context, you cannot use the past perfect because there is no Reference Time to which it can be related, no past time which it happened before. You may use the present perfect; it's perfectly correct; but there's no reason why you need to. Promises (and decisions, too, for that matter) are inchoative, they mark the beginning of a continuing state, so the idea of continuing into the present is as it were 'built in' to the word itself. A present perfect doesn't add anything.

Consequently, the natural way to say this is with the simple past:

He should be doing the chores right now, since he promised to help you out more.

marks an utterance as unacceptable
? marks an utterance as possibly unacceptable

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    I'm not 100% convinced about your "unacceptable" Past Perfect example. I don't see anything particularly wrong with, say, "He should be home by now, since he had promised not to stay out late". Okay, perhaps PP might never be necessary there (I'm not certain of that), but it doesn't seem inherently "invalid" to me. Commented May 31, 2013 at 16:36
  • @FumbleFingers Past perfect always implies a point in the past to which the event is anterior. It may be that that point, and its connection with 'right now', are defined in the discursive context; when that is the case, this sentence is acceptable in conversation. But they are not defined in the context we are given. (And in formal writing, where a more rigorous coherence of tenses is demanded, the sentence would not be acceptable even in the presence of adequate context. But of course that sentence is unlikely to arise in formal writing.) Commented May 31, 2013 at 18:22
  • Yes, there's always the implication of being earlier than some "reference time". But as I commented earlier today, that reference time itself may be only very loosely/indirectly implied. In your example, I'm quite happy to postulate a reference time a little while in the past (when he should have started doing the chores). I'm in no doubt many native speakers (consciously or not) do the same thing, and I think you're trying to constrain choice of tense more strictly than normally happens in natural speech. Commented May 31, 2013 at 21:10
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    @FumbleFingers Absolutely I'm trying to constrain choice. Given a choice between "You can always do this" and "You can often in speech get away with that", I'll tell a learner this every time. They have to write theses as well as talk about ballgames with their colleagues; syntactical coherence is no obstacle to colloquiality, but syntactical incoherence gets stomped on by thesis advisors. Commented May 31, 2013 at 22:21
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    @FumbleFingers Yes. I try to distinguish carefully here between colloquial and formal use; but I also try to distinguish clean use from muddy use in both registers. Commented May 31, 2013 at 22:52

Although your title asks about the past perfect tense, what your first example actually contains is a past perfect continuous tense.

Past Perfect tense involves "had + past participle", e.g. had seen, had gone, or (most confusingly) had been, where been is essentially a main verb.

Past Perfect Continuous tense involves "had been + present participle", e.g. had been seeing, had been waiting, or (as in your given sentence) had been getting.

Past Perfect Continuous tense does indeed always involve some continuing action; it started in the past, continued up to another point in the past, and is now complete. So, "I had been getting weird emails" is understood to mean that you are no longer receiving the weird emails. If you change from past perfect continuous to present perfect continuous ("I have been getting weird emails") then the action started in the past and is still ongoing; you continue to receive weird emails.

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