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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.

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

the second rule to use the past perfect is to show the order of 2 past events, the past perfect shows the earlier actions, and the past simple shows the later actions. and why we can't apply this rule to this sentence?
First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread.
Answer: made why not 'd made

Hello Loc Duc,

It's true that the past perfect shows one event was earlier in the past than another, but there also needs to be a connection between the two events. For example:

I got up, had a shower and made a cup of coffee.

Here, the past simple is used for each action as there is no connection between the events. They form a sequence but they do not affect or cause one another.

 

The thief had escaped when the police arrived.

This example is different. The thief escaping is clearly related to the police's arrival, as they were hoping to catch the thief. In other words, the escape changed the situation for the police in a key way. Thus, the past perfect is used.

 

 I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much Peter,
Every time I see you answers, a new avenue opens up for my better understanding in English. Keep it up.
"John told me that Tim had finished his work."
In the above reported sentence (Direct speech form for the above sentence- John said to me "Tim finished his work") - can we consider that Tim's finishing of work has influenced John's statement? Are they (john tole me & Tim had finished ) related to each other? Are they connected? If so, how? and in what way?
Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,
kingson

Hello,
Could you tell me why in the sentence "My grandma died before I was born." the author did not use Past Perfect to say ''My grandma had died...."?

Hello Zuzanna,

It's a question of preference, I think. Both forms are grammatically possible.

The past perfect emphasises a connection between the two events and would probably be used if the writer wanted to talk about how not having their grandma had changed their life, for example.

The past simple describes two events in the past, but does not necessarily mean that they are connected or influence one another.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi! I saw recently example in English Grammar in Use. " The ship sank because the engineer didn't call for help until it was too late". I think, "...because the engineer hadn't called until it was too late;" or why there must be didn't? I don't know, really. past perfect because thing (or action) hadn't done until moment. What would you say?

Hi Hatchaitchi88,

It's a good question :) Both the past perfect (hadn't called) and the past simple (didn't call) are correct here.

The action of calling for help happened before the ship sinking, so the past perfect makes sense.

But, speakers often simplify by using the past simple instead of the past perfect, if the order of the events is clear in the rest of the sentence. In this situation, it's logical that not calling for help would happen before the ship sinking. It says because the engineer didn't call for help ... . 'Because' shows what caused something, and a cause must logically come before the effect. So, that's why the past perfect can be simplified to the past simple here.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Oh, now I understand, thank you. There is one more question. In grammar test 2 on this page, question 6: "We had the French exam this morning. It wasn't as hard as I'd expected, though." I'd expected = "I had expected", right? First I thought that there would have been Past Perf. Contin., but then I thought, maybe there is Past Perfect, because "except" is non continuous verb; So, what is true? Is my quess right?

Hi Hatchaitchi88,

Yes, it means I had expected here. Actually, expect is used in both simple and continuous tenses, and both make sense in this sentence.

  • It wasn't as hard as I'd expected.
  • It wasn't as hard as I'd been expecting.

The continuous form emphasises that 'expecting' had some duration (i.e. it went on for some time).

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello.
I am supposed to do a test on Past Perfect Simple and Past Simple.
Is this correct?

The two men needed to get back to their camp quickly because they HAD ALREADY USED all their gas to make water from snow. Also, they DIDN'T BRING any extra food with them on this trip. Yates HAD TRIED to lower Simpson down the mountain on a rope, but Yates couldn't hold him so he HAD TO cut the rope. After trying to call him for several hours Yates was sure that Simpson HAD DIED so he walked down the mountain alone. However, Simpson HADN'T BEEN dead. He somehow managed to get out of the hole and get back to camp. Yates HAD ALREADY BURNED Simpson's clothes and was preparing to leave. He WAS very happy to see him because he HAD LOST all hope to see him alive.

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