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 (127 votes)
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sat, 13/10/2018 - 06:43

In reply to by shubhamgupta


Hello shubhamgupta,

The first sentence, with the past perfect verb, puts more emphasis on the fact that the planned action was to happen earlier than the other one. You could use either sentence with no difference in meaning in most any context I can think of.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user jityo

Submitted by jityo on Sun, 07/10/2018 - 09:02

Hi, "A baby boy, wrapped in a green blanket, was abandoned near a 7-Eleven outlet in xxx on Sunday (Oct 7)" 1) Is the "was abandoned" in the sentence a past perfect? 2) Is it used because the baby boy was abandoned and now rescued? 3) Will the meaning change much if they use simple past (abandoned, instead of was abandoned)? My understanding if they use a simple past, it mean the baby is still abandoned there... Well, thanks!
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sun, 07/10/2018 - 17:43

In reply to by jityo


Hi jityo,

1) 'was abandoned' is a passive construction in the past simple
2) We often use the passive voice when the subject of the verb is unknown. In this situation, we don't know who abandoned the child and the passive voice communicates this.
3) It's grammatically correct to say 'A baby boy abandoned', but it doesn't make much sense, since in general babies aren't even able to walk and therefore cannot abandon anyone or anything.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by katarey65 on Sat, 29/09/2018 - 04:10

my daughter, in her school exam, filled only "laughed" in the following sentence. The children laughed when they saw the clown. But the techer says it should be filled with "had laughed" . Should this sentence be formed in past perfect. I think it should be simple past. Pl advise.

Hello katarey65,

The use of the past perfect is dependent on the context in which the action occurs. It describes one or more actions which occur before another action, and which in some way have an effect on, cause or change the later action.

In your sentence in isolation the correct forms is 'laughed', not 'had laughed'. However, there could be a context which makes 'had laughed' possible.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Callista on Wed, 26/09/2018 - 09:53

The X-ray treatments____ up to the time he was dismissed from the hospital. In this sentence, which tense is correct? “were” or “had been”? Thank you in advance.

Hi Callista,

Either form can work in that sentence. 'had been' emphasises the sequence (first treatments, then dismissal) more, but both are correct.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Aishaika

Submitted by Aishaika on Fri, 31/08/2018 - 12:39

Hellow. You came at 9:30 am my dear, you were already late the Office was closed , we normally close the office at 8:30 am, try next time during weekdays where we work up to 1:00 pm. Is my sentence correct ? Is it necessary to use past perfect or we may also use past simple to explain things happened before in sequence?
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Fri, 31/08/2018 - 18:29

In reply to by Aishaika


Hello Aisha na Shadee,

The tenses in your sentence are all correct. Yes, the past simple can be used to narrate a sequence of past events; the past perfect wouldn't be appropriate here.

I would recommend breaking up the sentence into shorter pieces. For example, after 'late' and before 'try'.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Imran 26

Submitted by Imran 26 on Thu, 02/08/2018 - 02:07

Hi Sir, is there any section at this site for active & passive voices?