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 (126 votes)
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Submitted by parachutist on Thu, 12/04/2018 - 19:54

Thank you for your replies, much appreciated.

Submitted by parachutist on Thu, 12/04/2018 - 07:51

Hi Kirk, Thank you so much for your reply, this is very useful! Could I ask you one more question please: Is it common to use 'just' in combination with the Past Perfect or is it mostly used in combination with the Present Perfect, meaning an action a short while ago in the recent past? Thank you in advance once more!
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 12/04/2018 - 19:30

In reply to by parachutist


Hi parachutist,

I'd say it's common with both the present perfect and the past perfect. The present perfect is used a lot more often than the past perfect, however, so if you looked at the number of occurences of each tense in a specific corpus, particularly of spoken English, I suspect you'd see it more occurences with the present perfect.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by parachutist on Wed, 11/04/2018 - 09:07

Could you help me please? Is it correct to say: When I arrived at the party, Ann had just left. Or should I say: When I arrived at the party, Ann had already left. I was told that the adverb just is usually used in combination with the Present Perfect and not with the Past Perfect. Thank you in advance.

Hi parachutist,

Both of these sentences are correct but describe the event with a different focus. 'Ann had just left' means she had left a short time before I arrived. 'Ann had already left' means that she left sometime before I arrived -- 'already' adds a bit of emphasis to the idea that she left earlier. In many cases, we could use either one of these sentences to speak about the same thing -- the choice of one or the other really depends on how we want to describe it.

'just' is probably more often used with the present perfect, but it can be used with other tenses (including the past perfect) as well. If you read the example sentences on the page I linked to, you'll see what I mean.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sergey_34 on Sun, 01/04/2018 - 09:47

In the exercise it has exactly stated: "Do NOT use continuous tenses." But during the penultimate case correct answer was: "had been burgled" Is it the crooked description or I've missed something? I would have attached a screenshot if I had the opportunity. But presume the question is already clear without.

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