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)
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 08/11/2018 - 07:05

In reply to by bakh.sh85


Hello bakh.sh85,

You are welcome to ask us questions about question tags or other topics. We only ask that you ask them on the most relevant page you can find. For example, to ask about question tags, the most logical page would be our question tags page, but since there is no space for comments there, the next most relevant is probably questions and negatives.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bakh.sh85 on Sun, 04/11/2018 - 17:52

Thank you, Mr. Peter It helped a lot and still it may be confusing to me the use of some words like 'before' , 'until' and 'by the time" and "when". For example, if I say "When she called, I went out." it means both actions happened at the same time OR "When she called, I had gone out." it means the second part happened before the first part which is 'When she called, ... '. AND please tell me if the following sentences can be both correct or not: Until 1800, most immigration had been from Britain. Until 1800, most immigration was from Britain.

Hello bakh.sh85,

The relationships between different verb forms are quite nuanced. For example:

When she called, I went out. [I left at the moment she called, possibly as a result of the call]

When she called, I had gone out. [I was not at home when she called]

When she called, I was going out. [I was in the process of leaving when she called]


Both the sentences about immigration are possible. Without knowing the context in which they are used, I cannot say which is better.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by elaliyev on Fri, 02/11/2018 - 19:28

Hi, may I clarify one thing? When we are looking forwards from past, are we allowed to use past perfect for sequencing actions? For example can we say: "He said that I would receive a confirmation e-mail that the reimbursement had been made". Thank you

Hi elaliyev,

The sentence is correct – well done.

However, please note that the past perfect is not used because the actions are in sequence. To describe a sequence of actions we use the past simple:

I read the documents again before I made the phone call.

We use the past perfect because there is some relationship between the earlier action and the later one. It may be that the earlier action causes or allows the later one, or influences it in some way. In your example, the email is sent as a result of the reinbursement, and so the past perfect is appropriate as it signals this relationship.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by shubhamgupta on Sun, 28/10/2018 - 14:43

hello sir, pls tell me the difference between the given sentences--- 1.India had invited trump to attend republic day celebrations in 2019 2. India invited trump to attend republic day celebrations in 2019. as we know that past perfect is used when we have two separate events one after the other but i dont think that this condition is followed here sir. and if it so then when such sentences could be formed?
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sun, 28/10/2018 - 17:35

In reply to by shubhamgupta


Hello shubhamgupta,

You're right in thinking that there are separate events that occur in a sequence, but this doesn't mean that they both have to be mentioned in the same sentence. I expect that somewhere in the sentences before sentence 1, another event, subsequent to the invitation, is mentioned.

You can see some additional example sentences on this page.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bakh.sh85 on Mon, 22/10/2018 - 20:08

Hello In an English grammar book, I saw some time signals for past perfect as following: before + past simple + past perfect after + past perfect + past simple until + past simple + past perfect by the time + past simple + past perfect So can these words be the clues for "past perfect" and "past simple" tenses? P.s. I am not sure about the accuracy of the tenses of all the words I mentioned... plz help
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 24/10/2018 - 07:10

In reply to by bakh.sh85


Hello bak.sh85,

There are tendencies which work like this but please remember that they are not fixed rules. It is perfectly fine to use before + past simple + past perfect, for example, but it is also fine to use before + past simple + past simple. Pattterns like this can be misleading if you follow them as if they were rules. The context is key.



The LearnEnglish Team