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Past perfect

Do you know how to use phrases like They'd finished the project by March or Had you finished work when I called?

Look at these examples to see how the past perfect is used.

He couldn't make a sandwich because he'd forgotten to buy bread.
The hotel was full, so I was glad that we'd booked in advance.
My new job wasn't exactly what I’d expected.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Grammar B1-B2: Past perfect: 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

Time up to a point in the past

We use the past perfect simple (had + past participle) to talk about time up to a certain point in the past.

She'd published her first poem by the time she was eight. 
We'd finished all the water before we were halfway up the mountain.
Had the parcel arrived when you called yesterday?

Past perfect for the earlier of two past actions

We can use the past perfect to show the order of two past events. The past perfect shows the earlier action and the past simple shows the later action.

When the police arrived, the thief had escaped.

It doesn't matter in which order we say the two events. The following sentence has the same meaning.

The thief had escaped when the police arrived.

Note that if there's only a single event, we don't use the past perfect, even if it happened a long time ago.

The Romans spoke Latin. (NOT The Romans had spoken Latin.)

Past perfect with before

We can also use the past perfect followed by before to show that an action was not done or was incomplete when the past simple action happened.

They left before I'd spoken to them.
Sadly, the author died before he'd finished the series.


We often use the adverbs already (= 'before the specified time'), still (= as previously), just (= 'a very short time before the specified time'), ever (= 'at any time before the specified time') or never (= 'at no time before the specified time') with the past perfect. 

I called his office but he'd already left.
It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May.
I went to visit her when she'd just moved to Berlin.
It was the most beautiful photo I'd ever seen.
Had you ever visited London when you moved there?
I'd never met anyone from California before I met Jim.

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Grammar B1-B2: Past perfect: 2


Language level

Intermediate: B1


Hello Mr.
I have a question.
She has never been to Canada before.
She had never seen a real live elephant before.
Why did they use present perfect in the first sentence, and they use past perfect in the second on? What the difference between both of them?

Hello Reemtb,

The present perfect tells us about something which happened in the past but is still true and still relevant in the present. It describes something in the past from the point of view of the present. Thus, in your example the speaker is describing the woman's whole life up to now.


The past perfect is similar but instead of relating the past to the present, it relates a past event to later past time. Thus, it needs two past time points: past and futher past. The two events must be related in some way. Thus, in your example, the speaker is describing the woman's whole life up to some point in the past. That point is not mentioned in the sentence but would be indicated in the context in which the sentence is used.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank Mr a lot.
So if I used present perfect in the second sentence, it wouldn't be wrong.
She has never seen a real elephant before.

Hello again Reemtb,

Yes, that would be fine. It would refer to her whole life up to the moment of speaking.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for your clarification Mr.

Hello. Could you please explain why past perfect is used in this sentence? Is it because of adverb "Just"? Thanks

In the four summers from 2015 to 2018, Irish League clubs had secured just six victories from 42 European games.

Hello Viktoriano96,

Perfect forms are very much context dependent and it's not possible to say why the past perfect is used here without knowing the broader context in which the sentence appears. In the sentence as written, the past simple is also possible. I would imagine that there is another past time reference somewhere in the text which provided a point from which the speaker/writer is looking back, but this is not clear from the sentence alone.



The LearnEnglish Team

How to use past/past perfect tense when referring a letter with date.

For example, we had conveyed our approval to the company vide our letter dated 22 August 2018 . Is it correct?

Hi Shanth,

It's a bit difficult to say which tense to use if we only look at a single sentence. That's because the choice of tense also depends on information in other sentences before or after this one.

But, if we just take this sentence alone, it's not correct to use past perfect because there's only one action in the sentence (conveyed our approval). The past perfect is used when there are two past actions, and we want to show clearly which one happened first (see above for more explanation). So, past simple is the right tense for this sentence.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Would you please explain the rule of this sentence.
" First I made the salad, then I toasted with bread".
Thanks in advance.