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The Past Perfect-Progressive of English Verbs

Conjugated English verbs express a combination of grammatical tense, grammatical aspect, grammatical voice, and grammatical mood. Tense is the grammaticalized expression of time and roughly corresponds to actual time. Aspect is the grammaticalized expression of temporal structure and corresponds to duration. Mood is the expression of modality, or the expression of possibility, necessity, and contingency. Voice is the expression of relationships between predicate and nominal functions. The past perfect-progressive typically refers to verbs in the present tense, perfect-progressive aspect, indicative mood, and active voice. The past perfect-progressive is related to both the past perfect and past progressive aspects of English verbs.

The past perfect-progressive can be defined as a verb form that expresses and emphasizes the consequences resulting from a previous incomplete or ongoing action or state that began in the past and continues up to a specific time. For example, the sentence My brother had been studying medicine contains the verb phrase had been studying, which is an example of the past perfect-progressive. The use of the past perfect-progressive in this example indicates that the studying of medicine began in the past and continued up until a specific point in time when the action then stopped.

Formation of the Past Perfect-Progressive

As with most verb forms in English, the past perfect-progressive is periphrastic, a term that means a “phrase of two or more words that perform a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word.” Verbs in the past perfect-progressive are therefore formed by the past tense form of the verb have plus the past participle of the verb be followed by a present participle. The verb phrase patterns for the past perfect-progressive are as follows:

  • first person singular – had + been + present participle – I had been teaching grammar.
  • second person singular – had + been + present participle – You had been watching the baby.
  • third person singular – had + been + present participle – She had been growing carrots.
  • first person plural – had + been + present participle – We had been planning a vacation.
  • second person plural – had + been + present participle – You had been studying English.
  • third person plural – had + been + present participle – They had been cleaning the kitchen.

Notice that unlike with the present perfect-progressive, the verb phrase pattern for the past perfect-progressive is identical in all persons and numbers.

Use of the Past Perfect-Progressive

Because the past perfect-progressive the consequences resulting from a previous but ongoing action or state that ended at a specific point in time, the verb form most often occurs in sentences that express actions that continued for a duration of time in the past and actions that caused other actions in the past. For example:

  • The teacher had been speaking when a student interrupted him.
  • Many animals had been dying until drastic measures were taken.
  • We had been sleeping when the train crashed.
  • He had been contributing to the project.
  • They had been leaving when the encore started.

The following visual illustrates the uses of the perfect-progressive aspects of English verbs:

Perfect-Progressive Progressive of English Verbs

The past perfect-progressive expresses incomplete actions that continued up to a specific past time.

References

Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.

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