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)

Hi sergey_34,

'had been burgled' is not a continuous form, but rather a passive form. A continuous form is one like 'had been being burgled' -- the -ing word makes it a continuous tense.

I've included a couple of links to pages that I think might be useful for you, but if you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask us.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Pavan Kaur on Mon, 26/02/2018 - 07:09

Hello team Learn English In your Quick grammar section of past perfect the example : "The Romans had spoken Latin" is it correct? It is still not clear to me. Remember that we only use the past perfect when we want to refer to a past that is earlier than another time in the narrative. So is the use of past perfect correct in the given example? Thank you Pavan Kaur

Hello Pavan,

This sentence is intended as an example of a common mistake so you are right to recognise that it is wrong. I can see that the page is not as clear as it should be and that other people might think that this is intended to be a good example so, following your comment, I have edited the page to make it clearer.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Pavan Kaur on Sat, 24/02/2018 - 10:56

Hello Kirk Thank you so much for answering my LOT OF questions and clarifying my doubts on usage of simple past and present perfect; using "careers" in plural sense. I shall (or will....?) definitely read the page on active and passive voice. I think using "shall" in the above sentence is fine as as it also demonstrates I correct? Thank you. Pavan Kaur
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 26/02/2018 - 07:59

In reply to by Pavan Kaur


Hello Pavan,

Both 'shall' and 'will' are correct here, as you say, but in modern English 'shall' is actually quite unusual and sounds a little old-fashioned in most contexts. It is really only frequently used in questions as a way of making a polite suggestion:

Shall we go?

Shall we invite Bob to the party?

In this use it has a similar meaning to 'should' and a sense of 'Do you think it is a good idea to...?'



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Pavan Kaur on Fri, 23/02/2018 - 12:08

Hello 1. For the last seven years Jane (involved) has been involved in developing sales training. 2. Jane (nominate) has been nominated for several awards over the last few years for innovations she has made in the area of sales training. 3. She (promote) was promoted several times. In sentence 1. why can't we say "was involved" instead of "has been involved"? In sentence 2. why can't we say "was nominated" instead of "has been nominated"? In sentence 3. can we say "got promoted" instead of "was promoted"? Also in what scenarios do we use passive voice? Is "career" a singular countable noun? If it is, how do we use "careers" in plural sense?
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sat, 24/02/2018 - 10:38

In reply to by Pavan Kaur


Hello Pavan,

Those are a lot of questions!

In 1, 'for the last seven years' suggests that Jane is still involved nowadays -- for this reason, the past simple isn't correct. If she is no longer involved now, then you should use a time expression that makes this clear, e.g. 'for seven years' or 'From 2010 to 2017'.

Sentence 2 is the same -- 'last' includes the present time.

In sentence 3 you could say 'got promoted' or 'was promoted' -- they mean the same thing, though 'got' is more informal and might not be appropriate in some contexts. You could also say 'has been promoted', which would suggest that she is still rising in the company as you speak. If you say 'was' or 'got', it makes it sound like her time in the company is finished.

You can read more about the passive voice on our active and passive page.

Many people have different careers at different stages of their lives. For example, I know a musician who used to be a teacher. First he was a teacher and then he switched careers -- he's now a musician.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LittleGranny on Tue, 23/01/2018 - 11:02

Hi Peter Thank you so much, i understand now. Can i ask you another question? Is this correct to say: "The waiter brought a drink that we didnt order." Or " the waiter brought a drink that we hadnt ordered." Thanks in advance Kind regards Little granny
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Tue, 23/01/2018 - 19:36

In reply to by LittleGranny


Hello Little granny,

Both sentences are correct, but the one with 'hadn't' is a little clearer because it indicates the time sequence more clearly.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LittleGranny on Mon, 22/01/2018 - 09:42

Hi, Thank you for your replied. "Had you had your breafast?" That is past perfect. Is that when you wanted to ask someone if they had had thier breakfast yesterday morning. Is that correct? "Have you had your breakfast?" Is that present perfect? And is this when someone wanted to ask if they had had breakfast this morning yet.? Does that even make sense? Kind regards Little granny