You are here

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.

Adverbs

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

Comments

Hello Fahima mahjabin,

In this sentence, the words 'first' and 'then' show a sequence of actions, and we use the past simple after such adverbs. It would be a little unusual to use a past perfect here, but it is possible -- you could say, for example: 'I had made the salad when I toasted the bread.'

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

we can also say 'I made the salad before I had toasted the bread.'

Please correct me If I'm wrong

Thanks, The LearnEnglish Team.

Hello kyawkyawsoezhu,

Yes, you could say that, though most of the time we'd say 'I toasted', since 'before' makes the sequence clear. If you were my student, I would recommend 'I toasted' there.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Perfectly explained. I really appreciate your efforts.
But I have a query. As you have mentioned that "we cant use Past tense for a single event". Why it's so?
Sentences like- had he closed the shop?- It seems completely fine and making sense also, but this is a single event.

Hi Moses Jena,

Yes, the past perfect event must refer to another event or time in the past. If we say Had he closed the shop?, it must refer to another past event (e.g. Had he closed the shop before X happened?). That's the meaning of the structure, and the reason why it can't show a single event.

But, the other past event may or may not be in the same sentence. It could be, for example, in a previous sentence in the conversation.

  • Bill's shop was robbed last night. It seems the door had been left open. Had he closed the shop properly?

In this example, the last sentence only shows one action, in the past perfect. But it's clearly referring to closing the shop before the robbery, and readers or listeners would understand it as referring to that rather than being a single, isolated action.

If there's no reference to another past event, one of these options should be used.

  • past simple: Did he close the shop?
  • present perfect: Has he closed the shop?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

As you mentioned that we cant use past perfect tense while we are talking about a single event. so why we can't do that?

Sentences like "Had you not gone to the cinema?" seems right.

Dear Team,

Please enlighten me in this regard.
"Come and see me after you have finished your work"
Here the present perfect is used, but the work has not been finished yet. Could you please explain to me why we use present perfect in this sentence for a work that has not been done/finished yet.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

In time clauses that refer to the future, we typically use present tense forms (usually the present simple, but also the present perfect) to refer to the future action -- see the first paragraph of the Talking about the future section on this page.

In this case, the present perfect puts a little more emphasis on the action being finished (in the future), but otherwise there is no difference in meaning.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

That's very good, Kirk. The link was useful. I learnt a bit more about the present perfect.
"When you have finished the work you can go to sleep"
Here also the present perfect gives an emphasis (on finishing the work)?
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

Good, I'm glad. The grammar in this sentence is the same as the other one you asked about earlier. There is a very slight emphasis on 'you' finishing the work, but basically 'when you have finished the work' is another way of saying 'when the work is finished' (or 'has been finished').

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Pages