Past perfect

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? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

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 after before

We can also use before + past perfect 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

Average: 4.2 (121 votes)
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 23/01/2018 - 06:06

In reply to by LittleGranny


Hi LitttleGranny,

Perfect tenses always refer to an action/state before something else. They are not used just because something is far in the past, but must related an action/state to a second time or action. Thus we would only say 'Had you had...' if there was another time relevant to the action. For example:

Did you have breakfast? - We use the past simple because it is a question about the past. It could be able this morning or a morning ten years ago or longer.

Had you had breakfast before he arrived? - Here we use the past perfect because the action is related to another action in the past. Note that this is not just a sequence of activities. In some way the two actions are related.


The present perfect works in a similar way except that rather than having an action in the past before another action in the past we have an action in the past which occurs before the present, and is related in some way to the present. For example:

Have you had breakfast? - We use the present perfect because the past action (having breakfast) is related to the present. We are not just asking about breakfast but rather about whether the person is hungry in the present, and this is how the action is related to the present.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LittleGranny on Sun, 21/01/2018 - 12:39

Hello Peter I am a bit confused with the Had and Have questions. For example; Had you finished your homework before you went to the party? Or Have you finished your homework before you go to the party? When to use the have questions and when to use the had questions? And also is it correct to say Had you had you lunch yet? Kind regards Little Granny
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sun, 21/01/2018 - 13:53

In reply to by LittleGranny


Hello Little Granny,

In the first sentence you ask about only 'had' works (or 'did'). There are so many situations when we used 'had' and 'have', answering your question would take quite a lot of time. Could you please instead look at our past perfect and present perfect pages in the English Grammar? i think that should help you begin to understand this. If you have other questions, you are welcome to ask us, but please make them as specific as possible, as we aren't able to answer such general questions as the one you've asked us here.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lara17 on Wed, 17/01/2018 - 13:26

Hello, Can you please tell me which sentence is correct: Should I use past perfect: Since I had been busy working, I just finished this last night. Or Past simple: Since I was busy with work, I just finished this last night. Thank you.
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 18/01/2018 - 07:45

In reply to by lara17


Hello lara17,

Both forms are possible here and there is no real difference in meaning. I think 'only' would be a better choice than 'just' in this context, however.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter, Thank you so much for your help! :) Regards, Lara