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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


Thank you very much, Kirk.

Dear Sir,
Which is right ? and why?
I thought (past tense)you did not work(past tense) here. (But the person is currently working here)
I thought (past tense)you do not work (present tense)here. (But the person is currently working here)

In the similar way please find the following sentences.
Which is right ? and why?
I thought you have resigned the job (but the person is still in the same job)
I thought you had resigned the job (but the person is still in the same job)

Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,

While I was reading an article on BBC news I came across this sentence:
"The gardening group said limiting visitor numbers had seen it cut the number of people that could attend drastically."
I don't understand why have they used Past Perfect in the sentence and mainly I am still confused with the meaning of the sentence itself.

Hello Shreya,

The sentence does not look fully grammatical to me. In particular, I can't see what it refers to in the middle of the sentence.

Perfect forms are highly dependent on context and it's hard to comment on the use of the past perfect without knowing how the events in a particular sentence fit into the broader context of other past events as described in the rest of the text. It could be that had seen is used here because it is part of a reported speech construction, with the direct speech being 'limiting visitor numbers saw...,' but I can't be sure from just the decontextualised sentence.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Team,

I have got three questions.

Question 1. I just came across an incident, where I struggled to convey a simple message. My friend forgot to take his mobile phone with him to work. But he told me that he had taken the phone, WHEN HE LEFT THE HOUSE. Therefore I found the phone on the table at home and said to others at home that "Oh! he said he (my friend) has taken the phone."
Please let me know whether my sentence is correct or not. And please let me know "should I have used "had taken" instead of "has taken."
And in my introductory note (in bold letters) I have mentioned "............when he left the house"
Please let me know should I have mentioned "when he had left the house" instead of " when he left the house"

Question 2. Which of the following sentences is correct? And why?

"He has been doing it since he was born."
"He has been doing it since he has been born"

Question 3. Please let me know whether the following example is correct or not.
Example sentences: John went (past time reference in the previous/first sentence) to U.S.A few years ago. But I do not know(present tense) how he had completed(past perfect) his Visa process.
Thank you,

Hi kingson,

Re: question 2, the first sentence is correct, and the second one is not. Religious or metaphorical rebirths aside, we are born only once, and it's always in a past time. I can't think of any situation where the present perfect would be used with 'to be born'.

As for your other questions, please remember that while we try to be as helpful as we can with your questions about sentences you have written or found, we just can't explain everything. It just takes too much of the limited time we have for responding to comments. But I will give you very brief answers. For the first situation, you should say 'had taken' or 'took' and not 'has taken', and 'when he left home'. The past perfect isn't correct in the general context you describe in your third question.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,

I understand that there are some constraints, while you are trying to help a large number of people. But please remember that your service in invaluable. I have learnt a lot by your answers and am becoming stronger in English grammar and vocabulary. Your knowledge in this field is also so amazing.

In relation to perfect tenses, so far I have had the idea that it is depending upon the "(present, past and future) tenses" of the sentence, used. But now only I understand it is depending upon "the broader context of other past events as described in the rest of the text (I actually took this thought from your answer to the previous comment from Shreya) ."

So thank you very much for all your kind services.

It nice to learn or understand the past tense or past perfect but I have a doubt.
When we talk about past situation as
I did some work in yesterday and next day tell someone about what did I do yesterday then which past tense I can
Use past simple or past perfect.
Because we use past simple just I have done some work that thing I can't understand some time for using.

Hello Karan Narang,

When we are describing a completed action in the past we generally use the past simple.

The past perfect is only used when there are two past time references and we want to show that one preceded the other and in some way influenced it. The past perfect can be thought of as expressing something in the past before another action in the past.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
From the link you sent me on "continuous forms", I found the following sentence. It has got the "past perfect" (had been learning) with a "simple present tense" (Do not know). My understanding is, normally we use the past perfect, if there is a chance of a "past referal point" (or past tence) in the sentance or in the following sentences. But here we only use simple presentence comes with the past perfect. Could you please explain to me further on it? My question here is - Can we use a past perfect, when there is a simple presentence? (ex: I think he had finished his work)
"I don't know how long she had been learning Spanish."
Thank you,