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

 

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

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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 on Thu, 12/04/2018 - 19:30

In reply to by parachutist

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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 determination...am I correct? Thank you. Pavan Kaur
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Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 26/02/2018 - 07:59

In reply to by Pavan Kaur

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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...?'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

In reply to by Pavan Kaur

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

In reply to by LittleGranny

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

In reply to by LittleGranny

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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,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

In reply to by lara17

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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,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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