When to use the simple past 'was' and when 'had been'?

one confusion is in the use of ‘was’ and ‘had been’. there seems to be no set rules for the use of these two. when to use the simple past ‘was’ and when ‘had been’? i know the basic rules of these two, but writers seem to be using them without caring a damn about those rules. so what is the rule, if any?!!


was - Simple Past

  1. action finished in the past
    I visited Berlin last week. (I am not there any longer)

  1. series of completed actions in the past
    First I got up, then I had breakfast

  1. together with the Past Progressive/Continuous - The Simple Past interrupted an action which was in progress in the past.
    They were playing cards when the telephone rang.
    [size=75]Signal words
    yesterday, last week, a month ago, in 2002[/size]

Had been - Past Perfect

  1. The past perfect is used to show you which of two events happened first. Imagine that two things happened in the past:

She was crying, she had received a sad news. (The news came first then she was crying.)
I went to see the movie. We had discussed it in class. (Here, we KNOW that the discussion took place FIRST – even though the sentence describing it comes afterwards.)

Hi Prasunkumar,

There is a certain freedom sometimes on whether to choose past or past perfect. Generally the past simple is for what you might call historical past. The past perfect is often used for particular clarity when you want to distinguish a previous time coming before the time in the past simple.

Let me illustrate this. If it’s just one event in the past after another, then it would be past simple as in: He left the office early and then went for a drink. A little later he caught the train home and arrived there at about 8.

If you want to be meticulous about the sequence, say you are asked by a police officer exactly to say what you did and when, the past perfect would come into play: After he had left the office, he went for a drink. After he had finished his drink, he then caught the train. That’s being quite precise but it would also be acceptable in general conversation to say:

After he left the office, he went for a drink. After he finished his drink, he went home.

I hope I have given some idea of the difference between straight narrative, precise timing and general conversation.


dear milanya and alan,

many thanks for your replies to my question regarding the use of ‘was’ and ‘had been’. your replies helped me a lot. however, some writers seem to be either infatuated or pissed off with the use of ‘had been’, especially where the write-up is in the past tense. they use or don’t use them willy-nilly, without a caring a hoot about grammatical rules. why? i just want to know suppose i completely do away with ‘had been’, what then? can i? can i say, ‘I woke up at seven in the morning and remembered how i was drinking at the party last night and making a prize fool of myself in mixed company’? i will be extremely delighted if you tell me some more on this vexing usage.

thanks and regards,

I don’t think you can completely do away with had been. If the chronological order of events that took place is clear in your sentences, you don’t need to use past perfect (like the ones Alan suggested). On the other hand, you can choose past perfect to let the readers know the sequence of events.

Sarah left for London when I arrived at her office. (She left after you arrived)
Sarah had left for London when I arrived at her office. (She left before you arrived)

Have a look at the following paragraph.

John proposed to Sarah last year but she declined. They had been living together for three years. John couldn’t digest the fact that Sarah turned down his proposal. He thought how big a fool he had been.

I don’t think had been can be replaced with was in the above para because his being a fool had begun somewhere in the past(four years ago) and continued until last year.

Am I right Alan?


Thanks for your post. Yes. ‘Had been’ can’t be done away with all the time. I know. But it seems quite crazy when it can be, doesn’t it? Thanks for your excellent examples. They helped. Keep me posted if you find some new rules regarding this use. Thanks once again and cheerho.

I cannot believe that you are complaining about people ignoring the rules of grammar. Take a look at some of your basic blunders here, and go back to square one.

Stop being so damned lazy!-------Posted earlier today on the ESL newcomers Forum.

Prasunkumar, I just wanted to add that many newcomers read all of these posts as a simple matter of interest.

Many members spend their time trying to help these newcomers, only to be confounded by your good self eroding all of THEIR work.

I am well aware that you have great grammatical skills. Please display them so that others may gain some advantage.


ps. We don’t need to know about folk being p++++d off either thanks.

Dear Kitosdad,

Take it easy boss. I has a problem and I’m trying to get enlightened by masters like you. That’s all. Grammar changes, I know. But I don’t want to be the one to change it. There are certain risks in being a trailbrazer in this field, you know. It seems you know all there is to know about this ‘was’ and ‘had been’ business: Why not share your knowledge with us? Take care and best.


Dear Pras, I know even less than you, believe me. I’m no teacher.

All I was trying to get across is that many non-native speakers browse these posts, and surely it is to their benefit that we at least try to present English in it’s correct form.

I’m doing my bit here, and I get a bit frustrated when people just ignore what is being written.

I was even surprised that " those who should know better " :lol: did not see the need to
correct you.

Please Pras, it isn’t difficult is it.?

Your friend, Kitosdad.

Good ol’ Bill seems to have made a little mistake here. :smiley:

Shouldn’t it be English in [size=150][color=blue]its[/size] correct form?

Gotcha :smiley:

You little Devil, :smiley: :smiley: , so I did. Yellow card for me then. Back on the bench. :lol:

Guten morgen, herr Kitosdad,

Thanks for the post. People who know better generally don’t correct sir. Maybe that’s why they know better. We’ve to learn it the hard way. Is this an experts’ club? In that case, I must get out of here as I’m no expert. I come here to learn. Maybe I should scram. Thanks for your posts. All of you are great people. Take care.

Good morning Pras. Please don’t take the hump. I’m not German, I’m a Geordie from Newcastle.

There are many experts here, but I don’t include myself amongst them.

People DO come here to learn, most successfully, but I state my case yet again ;
How can they be expected to learn, when you yourself ignore the very basics of grammar.?

Please, let’s put this behind us, because I’m sure that when you cool down you will realise that you too, could make a great contribution here.


Sorry Kitosdad,

A little learning is a dangerous thing. If only I could resist to show off my little German…! Lol. Cool down?! Sir, I’m not at all steaming! You’re absolutely right. I just wanted to know if this site was (can I use ‘is’ here?) exclusively for the exchange between experts. No way was I making a tongue-in-the-cheek remark. Your English is pretty good and you should be proud of it. Hope I’ll benefit from your knowledge. If ever I come upon any problem regarding English, I’ll seek your help. Thanks and take care.


Pras, I would certainly be prepared to help you in any way I can :-
Building a wall, or extension.
Rewiring your house.
Installing your kitchen or bathroom. How about a nice Turbo electric shower.?
Re-roofing your house.
Installing double glazing.
Laying a new laminate floor, or fitting new carpets.
Removing and repairing your engine.
Rebuilding your stripped down automatic gearbox.

But please, do not ask me what Future Continuous ( is supposed to ) means.
I haven’t a clue, and quite frankly, I don’t want to know.

Kitosdad. ( Bill to you. )

Hey Bill,

You’ve a great sense of humour. So you are a master of almost all boring chores. Your wife must be a happy woman. God bless her. Will talk to you letter sir. Take care.

Prasunkumar (prasun to you).