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)

Submitted by shubhamgupta on Fri, 29/06/2018 - 11:32

hi , pls give me a clear picture of how to use " had " in simple past tense. will be really thankful for this.
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Fri, 29/06/2018 - 16:54

In reply to by shubhamgupta


Hi shubhamgupta,

You could say, for example, 'I had a red bicycle when I was little.' Could you please be more specific? It's just that there are many, many ways in which 'had' can be used in the past simple. we'd also ask you to ask this question on our past simple page rather than here on our past perfect page.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by zeynepucar on Sun, 24/06/2018 - 10:30

Hello, could you help me please? What’s the difference between those two sentences? “She had been married for three years when her son was born.” “She was married for three years when her son was born.” Thanks a lot, take care!

Hello zeynepucar,

It's hard to be certain without seeing the broader context, but the second sentence does not look correct to me. The first sentence describes a state in the past which ran up to an point later in the past, and which may have continued.



The LearnEnglish Team

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!
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

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.