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 Peter M. on Sat, 11/04/2020 - 07:49

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Unless there is a second past time reference point in another sentence in the wider context, there is no need to use the past perfect in the first sentence. A past simple is fine:

I am glad to know how easily the early historians understood this concept in the third century A.D.

 

In your second sentence is is required. We would usually put now after it:

John is our lawyer, who advocated for us and is now teaching law courses.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by 83roman on Wed, 08/04/2020 - 17:40

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Helo, Could you tell please, what is the meaning of next sentence from the test 2: She didn't feel like another coffee as she ___ one.

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 09/04/2020 - 12:47

In reply to by 83roman

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'she'd just had one' is a shorter way of saying 'she had just had one'. Here the verb 'have' is used in two different ways. The first 'had' ('she had just had one') is the auxiliary verb 'have' in the past tense, which is the first part of a past perfect verb.

The second 'had' ('she had just had one') is the past participle of the main verb 'have', which here means 'to consume', that is, 'to drink'. I believe that in Italian you would say 'prendere un caffè' for 'have a coffee' here.

Does that make sense?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by anna from germany on Wed, 01/04/2020 - 08:24

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Dear British Council Team, could you help me to correct this sentence? After I had shot the ball over the goal, I never saw it again. Or After I had shot the ball over the goal, I have never seen it again. Is both correct? Thank you a lot! Anna

Hello Anna,

The first sentence is correct. I think we'd be more likely to say shot rather than had shot in the first part of the sentence, however, as there is no need to emphasise the connection between the two actions.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Praveen on Tue, 31/03/2020 - 16:19

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Dear Peter, What is the difference between "they published" and "they were published" Thanks

Hello Praveen

'they published' is in the active voice and 'they were published' is in the passive voice. If you follow the link, I think the explanation on that page will clarify this for you, but if you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask us there.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Paula Vera on Sat, 28/03/2020 - 18:46

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Hi Peter or Kirk, I am having problems with this sentence: She didn't feel like another coffee as she'd just had one....if you don't want to make it short would you say like this? as she had just had one???

Hello Paula,

Yes, that's right. In that sentence she'd just is a contraction of she had just. It's a past perfect form because the action precedes and is relevant to another action in the past (not wanting another coffee).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Lal on Tue, 17/03/2020 - 06:04

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Hello Sir Please let me know whether this sentence is right or wrong. e.g. He was the most extra ordinary man I had ever seen in my life Thank you. Regards Lal

Hello Lal,

The sentence is fine apart from one spelling issue: extraordinary should be one word, not two.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Tue, 24/03/2020 - 08:40

In reply to by Peter M.

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Dear Peter, I just wanted to add a question to your answer. Can we put the sentence in the following way? "He was an extraordinary man that I have ever seen." Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson

I'm afraid that's not correct. I'd recommend something like 'He was one of the most extraordinary man I've ever seen'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Tue, 11/02/2020 - 11:31

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Dear Sir, Is it a necessity that the present tense has to be changed into a past tense in a reported speech. e.g. Direct: Tim said to Tom," John is at home" Indirect: Tim told Tom that John was at home. Direct: Tim said to Tom, "John was at home". Indirect: Tim told Tom that John had been at home. Are the above mentioned conversions (from direct to indirect) right? And one more thing............ Can we say the above mentioned statements without changing the tenses? e.g. Direct: Tim said to Tom," John is at home" Indirect: Tim told Tom that John is at home. (The present tense is not changed) Direct: Tim said to Tom, "John was at home". Tim told Tom that John was at home (Past tense is not changed) Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 07:45

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

Yes, those first two pairs of sentences are all correct -- well done!

It is possible to say the other two pairs of sentences you ask about, but the first one ('Tim told Tom that John is at home') in particular would only be correct when we know that John is still at home at the time this sentence is used.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nabeelah on Sat, 08/02/2020 - 08:00

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Hello can we use past perfect to describe two or more actions EXAMPLE They had found it and they had investigated it but they had never found a solution for it.I know this is a dumb question but thr was something similar to this in a novel. So can we deacribe two or more past actions using past perfect? How?

Hello Nabeelah,

It's fine to use the past perfect for multiple actions so long as there is a later past time reference point. The past perfect has the meaning of before then, so there must be another point in the past before which the events take place. For example, your sentence without any context would not make sense as there is no later point of reference. Of course, in context there probably would be:

Before 1998 there was little progress. They had found it and they had investigated it but they had never found a solution for it. But in 1998 that changed.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 07/02/2020 - 10:00

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Dear Sir, Which one of the following sentence is correct? Jesus said that we need to do it until he comes.(It is a fact - "we need to do it" - so, present tense is used here) or Jesus said that we needed to do it until he came.( It is said in the past, so past tense is used - "we needed to do this until he came" - And it is a reported sentence as well) I am so confused here, as to how can I say this. Please help me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 08/02/2020 - 07:36

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Both forms are possible. When we shift the tense back in reported speech it does not mean that the action is in the past.

For example:

 

Direct speech:

I like you.

Reported speech:

1. She said that she liked me.

2. She said that she likes me.

Both options are grammatically correct. The first sentence tells us that she liked me at the time she said it. It does not tell us if this is still true or not. The second tells us that she liked me at the time she said it and that it is still true today.

In your example, the context within the sentence (until he came) already tells us that the action is still true, so whether or not the tense is present (need) or past (needed) makes no difference.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Thank you very much for your time and energy to explain things to me. In my humble opinion, gramatically, the speech you are reporting (She said) is understood to refer to that past time, not the current time, therefore "She said that she liked me." - should be correct; not the other one (She said that she likes me.). If you say both options are right, then this should also be gramatically correct - e.g. Tom told(past tense) Tim that Simon has not finished(Present perfect) the work. - Here we are taking the current situation into account. Here, I am not challenging your answer, but I need indebt understanding of sentence formation in English. So please do not mistake me. And one more thing............. Is "until he came" related to the past time (Jesus said) reference? If yes, Please explain to me how. Because my understanding is "we needed to" - is directly linked to past time (Jesus said) reference and not the "until he came". If my understanding is correct, then can we say like the following? Jesus said we needed to do this until he COMES. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by _princess_ on Sun, 26/01/2020 - 07:01

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Hello. Which one of the following is correct and why? He lived in London for 5 years and then moved to Manchester. He had been living in London for 5 years and the moved to Manchester.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 26/01/2020 - 07:40

In reply to by _princess_

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Hello _princess_,

Both are possible. The choice of which to use depends upon the context and the speaker's intention.

When we want to show a straightforward sequence of events we use the past simple, as in your first example. When it is important for some reason to emphasise that one action came before another, or when the later event is in some way dependent on or changed by the earlier event, we can use the past perfect with a past simple, as in your second example.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you. Could you help me with one more sentence? Which variant is correct? He practised his grammar for 2 hours yesterday. Or He had been practising his grammar for 2 hours yesterday. Past Simple or Past Perfect Continous Thanks for your help.

Hello _princess_

As with the other sentences you asked about, it really depends on the context. Without any context or statement after it (e.g. 'He'd been practising grammar for two hours when his teacher told him he needed to study vocabulary'), the second one would be quite strange. The the first one, on the other hand, could make sense in many different situations.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 23/01/2020 - 10:56

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Dear Sir, "If you would only give us more proof, we would believe" Is the word "would" (in both places) a modal verb or is it a past tense of "will"? And............ Can we use would on both part of this sentence ("if" clause and the following clause)? Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 24/01/2020 - 08:14

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Normally, we do not use modal verbs in both halves of a conditional sentence, but it is possible when we want to make the condition more tentative. In this case, the sense of 'If you would only give us...' is 'If you were willing to give us...

You can see this used sometimes to add politeness:

If you will come this way, sir I'll see you to your seat. (= If you don't mind coming...)

 

'Would' is the past form (used to show an unreal or unlikely action or event) of 'will', but that does not mean it is not a modal verb. In this case, it is both.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Thank you so much for your time and patience to answer my question. Regards, kingson
Dear Peter, Please enlighten me in the construction of the following setences. "If elected, I will stand for justice" "if elected, I would stand for justice" Which is right ? and Why? In the first sentence - is "will" an ancillary verb? or a modal ? or both? In the second sentence - is "would" an ancillary verb? or a modal ? or both? Which sentence implies more politeness? Please enlighten me in this regard. Regards, Thank you, kingson

Hello kingson,

Both sentences are possible. The verb form in the first clause is passive and the auxiliary verb is omitted, which means we do not know if it is a present simple passive or a past simple passive. That is why both will and would are possible:

If I am elected, I will stand for justice.

If I were elected, I would stand for justice.

The first sentences describes a likely or plausible condition and its result. The second sentence describes a condition which the speaker sees as unlikely or impossible.

Both will and would are modal verbs.

The difference between the sentences is one of plausibility or likelihood, not politeness.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, You have given me an exemplary answer. I have another question to ask you. Why the "will" can not be an ancillary verb in the first sentence? I think it comes under an "indicative mood". So under this circumstance can I call it (will) as an ancillary verb? And Would you be able to give me an example of one or two sentences which can have "will" and "would" as both verbs(ancillary and modal), please? I am being so annoyance to you by aksing too many questions. But my intention is to learn English clearly. Thank you for your help. Regards, kingson

Hello kingson,

Modal verbs are one kind of auxiliary verb, which is what I think you mean by 'ancilliary verb'. You can see a list of auxiliary verbs in English here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_verb#List_of_auxiliaries_in_English

 

You can read about the three moods in English (indicative, subjunctive and imperative), as well about how modal verbs relate to the topic, here:

https://grammarianism.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/mood-and-modality-what-is-the-difference/

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Thank you for answering me. Your answer and the links you provided me, took me to a completely different world of English grammar. Thanks again. I am still learning. Regards, kingson

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 00:37

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Dear Sir, Which is right to say? Once you had it, then you would start using it. or Once you had it, then you will start using it. Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 08:41

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

The second one is not correct. The first is correct, but a little strange -- I would say 'if' instead of 'once'. With 'once', I would want to say 'Once you have it, you will start using it'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Wed, 08/01/2020 - 08:20

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Dear Sir, Which one of the following is correct? Please remember "We said yesterday that we have to do cooking this afternoon, today". or Please remember "We said yesterday that we had to do cooking this afternoon, today". Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 09/01/2020 - 06:22

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

You might hear the first, but the second one is better.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Manar Ragheb on Sat, 04/01/2020 - 16:41

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dear sir , I'm very confused So, I would like to explain the difference between the past perfect and past simple in this example : James had cooked breakfast when we got up. James cooked breakfast when we got up. why in 1st sentence do we use past perfect and in 2nd only past simple ? Is it depend on the order of actions only ?

Hello Manar Ragheb,

There is a difference in meaning:

In the first sentence (had cooked) the cooking is finished before you got up.

In the second sentence (cooked) the cooking began when you got up.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Wed, 01/01/2020 - 05:45

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Dear Sir, Please let me know what is the difference between the following sentences. What people say of me? What people say about me? And what is the meaning of "of" in the following sentence? Forgive us of our sins. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 01/01/2020 - 08:38

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

I would recommend you use 'about', which is the most commonly used preposition in cases such as these. 'of' is not incorrect, it's just a bit archaic and would make you sound strange in most contexts.

By the way, both of the questions are incorrect in standard British (or American) English: questions in the present simple use the auxiliary verb 'do': 'What do people say about me?'.

'Forgive us of our sins' is another archaic form; it means the same thing as 'forgive us our sins' and is part of a passage from the Christian Bible that is commonly known as the Lord's Prayer.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 26/12/2019 - 05:00

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Dear Sir, What is the difference between the following three phrases? "Call to me" "Call unto me" "Call me" Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 26/12/2019 - 09:05

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

If you haven't already, the first thing I'd recommend is that you carefully study example sentences in the dictionary. As you can see there, this verb has quite a few different meanings. 'Call me', by the far the most common of the three you ask about, can therefore mean quite a few different things which you can see perfectly well in the dictionary.

It's difficult for me to imagine all possible situations in which one might say 'Call to me', but in general I'd say it is a way of giving instructions to someone to get my attention at some point in time.

'Call unto me' is not really used outside of very specific contexts any more. You might find it in a passage from an older translation of the Bible, for example, but it would be quite unusual to hear or read it in most places nowadays.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Tue, 17/12/2019 - 10:59

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Dear Sir, I have asked few questions on the following sentence and got excellent answers from you. But I still have a question on the same sentence. " My friend got married (past time reference) to a girl who had been working here in this office".(The girl is currently working in the same office) If I use past perfect (had been working), it works well with time reference(past tense- got married). But it ignores that the girl still works in the same office. So please let me know which way I can form this sentence better. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 18/12/2019 - 07:37

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello Kingson,

If the girl works in the office now then a present simple is the most obvious choice:

My friend got married to a girl who works here in this office.

Of course, this does not tell us that the girl worked in the office when your friend got married, though that would be the most likely way to understand the sentence. If you needed to make it explicit, then you would need to add the information separately:

My friend got married to a girl who worked here in this office. She still works here.

My friend got married to a girl from this office. She still works here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Thank you very much for your service. It's really throwing light on some darker areas. Have a happy New year. Regards, kingson

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Mon, 09/12/2019 - 16:42

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Dear Sir, "Since you were honest to me, I have chosen you as my secretary". Here, there is a past tense and a present perfect in a sentence. Is the sentence correct with these two tenses together? Does the past tense plays an adverbial function here in this sentence? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 10/12/2019 - 07:02

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello Kingson,

The sentence is perfectly correct. It describes an action in the near past which has a present result (choosing) and provides a completed past action (being honest) which provided the motivation for this action.

The sentence has two clauses which are joined by a subordinating conjunction (since). The conjunction expresses a causal relatioship in a similar way to 'because'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, That's an excellent answer. Thank you so much for that. Please find the following sentences. I thought (past tense)you did not work(past tense) here. (But the person is currently working here) I thought (past tense)you do not work (present tense)here. (But the person is currently working here) Which is right ? and why? In the similar way please find the following sentences. I thought you have resigned the job (but the person is still in the same job) I thought you had resigned the job (but the person is still in the same job) Is the clause "I thought" is a near past tense to the rest of the sentence? I know my question is bit vague but I believe your answer will throw light on what I want to achieve. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Donald Harrison on Thu, 28/11/2019 - 13:01

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Dear Teacher, This is about articles and making a generalization ( in this case "bank"). I would like to know if there is any difference in the meaning of the following sentences or if they have the same meaning. Could you also tell me which one is more appropriate? 1. People go to a bank to deposit money 2. People go to banks to deposit money Thank you.

Hello Donald Harrison,

Both sentences are possible; which is appropriate depends upon what you want to say. 

The distinctions between indefinite, definite and zero article for generic meaning are very subtle. I wrote a long answer a while ago describing them.  You can find that answer here:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/comment/140263#comment-140263

 

I think if you read that explanation you should be able to see the difference between your two sentences.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team