past perfect continuous


I was curious about this tense vs other tenses and this particular online resouce gave the following example that left me more confused. "Jim had been living in Pakistan before he moved to the US." My understanding is that past perfect continuous is when an event occured in the past before another event but has consequence in the present; however, Jim has moved to the US after he had lived in Pakistan which means that the act of living in Pakistan ended in the past when he moved to the US. Shouldn't this sentence be only correct with the past perfect or am I missing something?

asked May 15 '13 at 13:18 sang kang New member

4 answers


It could be either way. The past perfect progressive (or continuous) indicates a continuous action that ended at some point, but doesn't necessarily have to have present consequences.

This sentence could be written correctly using several tenses.


He had been living in Pakistan before moving to the US. Past perfect progressive.

He had lived in Pakistan before moving to the US. Past perfect.

He lived in Pakistan before moving to the US. Simple past.

He was living in Pakistan before moving to the US. Past progressive.

link answered May 15 '13 at 13:31 Lewis Neidhardt Grammarly Fellow

Thank you for you prompt reply but I am still confused. Could you explain how the tenses change the meaning of the sentences? I feel like the way you descibed it there are no difference in meaning between past perfect progressive and past perfect. The simple past sounds right but I thought when comparing two actions that occured in the pas you have to use past perfect (progressive). I thought imperfect meant that something happened in the past but now is unclear whether the action has ended. If jim moved to the US the act of living in pakistan has ended.

sang kangMay 15 '13 at 13:53

add comment

Hi Sang,

Thanks for the great question.  I wanted to add to what Lewis said, and perhaps I can also help you with the follow-up questions you posted in response to Lewis’s answer.

Past Perfect Simple (PPS) vs. Past Perfect Continuous/Progressive (PPC)

These comments apply to both Present Perfect and Past Perfect, but since your question is about the latter tense, I shall confine my explanation thusly.

Past events rendered using PPS occurred, as you wrote, “before another event” which is usually rendered using the Past Simple.  But your understanding is incorrect that the PPS event has consequence in the present: rather, it had consequence in the past, at the timeframe considered by the other past event which is rendered in the Past Simple.  For example: I went to bed early last night, because I had finished my report the night before.  The past action of having finished my report occurred before the action of going to bed early, and had consequence at the time I went to bed.  To be clear, finishing the report does NOT have consequence in the present: its importance relates to the going to bed early last night.

Past events rendered using PPC started before another past event, which is usually rendered using the Past Simple, and continued up to the time of  (or ended very shortly before) that other past event.  The event which continued up to or ended shortly before the other past event also has consequence at that time (not present consequence).  For example: I was exhausted at 11:30 am yesterday because I had been jogging.  The jogging preceded the being exhausted, continued up until (or finished very shortly before) that time, and had consequence on it.

Action and Non-Action (State) Verbs – Another Complicating issue when Choosing between PPS and PPC

When choosing between PPS and PPC, you also have to consider whether the verb is an action or a non-action verb:  non-action verbs are almost always rendered in PPS and not PPC.  So, even though a “non-action action,” or a state, began before another past event and continued up until (or ended shortly before) it, PPS should be chosen instead of PPC:   I had been a lawyer before I went back to university is correct; I had been being a lawyer before I went back to university is a grammar mistake.

The Grey Area: A Small List of Verbs That Can Be Considered Either Action or Non-Action (State) Verbs

The relatively-straightforward division between action verbs and state verbs blurs considerably with a certain subset of verbs that can be considered either action or state.  Here is my list, but there may be other verbs too: live, work, teach, study, smoke, play, wait.  Each of them, if you think about it, can be considered either an action or a state, or sometimes an action and other times a state.  Because of the greyness, the blurriness, you can correctly render these actions using either PPS or PPC with the same meaning.  I had taught in Germany before I became an opera singer has the same meaning as I had been teaching in Germany before I became an opera singer. You will find some grammar books that say the PPS version suggests a longer time period than does the PPC version, but in practice, the overwhelming majority of native English speakers use PPS/PPC interchangeably for the same meaning with this discrete subset of verbs.

Even when you can isolate an action meaning vs. a state meaning for a particular situation, and might think you should use PPC for the action meaning and PPS for the state meaning, in fact, by virtue of the verb’s membership in this discrete list, either PPC or PPS will be readily understood as being completely grammatically correct by any native English speaker.  For example, let’s think about play tennis.  The state meaning would be the state of being able to play tennis, and playing it on some regular or semi-regular basis; the action meaning would be the actual physical activity of playing it at a certain time.  However, it would be just as comprehensible to say I had been playing tennis for years when I won my first championship as it would to say I had played tennis for years when I won my first championship; equally, it would be just as perfectly understandable to say I was exhausted because I had played tennis for three hours as it would to say I was exhausted because I had been playing tennis for three hours.

When the verb in question belongs to that subset, you can choose either PPS or PPC and everyone will understand and no one will accuse you of making a grammar mistake. 

This, finally, is why the sentence Jim had been living in Pakistan before he moved to the US is grammatically correct.  The action of living in Pakistan began before moving to the US and continued up to that point; and, because ‘live’ is one of the verbs on the list, it could also be restated as Jim had lived in Pakistan before he moved to the US and be perfectly understandable.

I hope this helps.  Choosing between PPS and PPC, never mind all the other tenses, can be difficult!  Don’t hesitate to ask if you have any follow-up questions.


link comment edited May 15 '13 at 14:50 Shawn Mooney Expert

Hi again Sang, I think you have basically understood my long-winded reply. To slightly revise your summary, I would say that the briefest summary of the difference between PPS and PPC is that--with the important, complicated exception of the subset of verbs I referred to in my earlier reply--verbs rendered with PPS refer to COMPLETED actions that have relevance to the other, subsequent past event, and verbs rendered with PPC refer to actions that began before the other, subsequent past event, have relevance to it, and CONTINUED until it or ENDED JUST BEFORE it.  It is still too long but it is the most concise summary I am capable of. I hope this helps.

link answered May 16 '13 at 11:41 Shawn Mooney Expert

Shawn,Thanks again. I finally understand the structure and meaning of the two tenses. Today, however, I came across an example in the book The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer that I believe and hope is a mistake. If it isn't I may be confused all over again. The book gives the following sentence for past perfect verb usage: "Before a complete version of Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women appeared in 1880, the book had been published in two separate volumes." Isn't the construction for PPS had + simple past and not had been + simple past?

sang kangMay 16 '13 at 22:21

... unless "been" is the past participle and "published" is an adverb modifying "been"?

sang kangMay 16 '13 at 22:27

Sang, that example sentence is the Past Perfect Passive. You can read more about that verb tense here: I hope it helps.

Shawn MooneyMay 17 '13 at 10:50

Thank you Shawn! I fully understand this tense thanks to your help! Would it be okay to PM you if I have grammar questions in the future?

sang kangMay 17 '13 at 20:05

add comment


I really appreciate the time you put into this reply.  I am beginning to understand these two tenses but the myriad of resources out there on the internet seem to give close but subtle differences in definition.  Thank you for bringing to light that there are special circumstances for this particular tense.  My revised understanding of PPC is that it is an action that happened for a duration of time that ended before another action, and PPS is an action that simply happened  before another action.  Does that mean the difference in meaning between PPC and PPS is the quality of expressing the duration of time of the first (or preceding) action?

link comment answered May 15 '13 at 21:49 sang kang New member

Your answer

Write at least 20 characters

Have a question about English grammar, style or vocabulary use? Ask now to get help from Grammarly experts for FREE.