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: 4.3 (114 votes)
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 07/06/2019 - 07:43

In reply to by Sharma Harry

Hello Sharma Harry, Neither sentence looks fully correct to me, though it is hard to say without knowing the context in which it appears and without knowing the speaker's intention. You could say the following: > Barack Obama had taught for twelve years at Chicago University; even he did not know that he would one day be president of the USA. However, as I said, I would need to know the full context to be sure. It may not be appropriate to use the past perfect (had taught), for example. This depends on the context. ~ Peter The LearnEnglish Team
Profile picture for user Aniyanmon

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Sat, 25/05/2019 - 11:07

Dear sir, She injured her shoulder playing tennis. She injured her shoulder while playing tennis. I hurt my back lifting that box. I hurt my back while lifting that box. I saw the above four sentences in a grammar book. I am a non native speaker, according to me the above sentences only with "while" make sense. Kindly enlighten me.
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sat, 25/05/2019 - 16:46

In reply to by Aniyanmon

Hello Aniyanmon They are all correct. The sentences without 'while' have what's called a participle clause. You can read more about them on All the best Kirk The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 18/05/2019 - 11:33

Can we use a present tense with a past perfect? e.g: "He records what had happened in ancient times." Please give me an answer. Thank you.
Hello kingsonselvaraj, That sentence is not correct as the past perfect needs a second past time for reference. This can be implied by the context rather than stated explicitly, but it is necessary. Without this, we simply use the past tense (simple or continuous): > He records what happened in ancient times ~ It is possible to have a present tense with the past perfect, but only if there is a second past tense for reference. For example: > I know what you had done - incorrect without any other past time reference in the context > I know what you had done before she arrived - correct ~ Peter The LearnEnglish Team
Profile picture for user Aniyanmon

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Sun, 12/05/2019 - 07:26

Dear sir, I would like to know the meaning of the following sentences. 1.The building has been completed now for 5 years. 2. His mother has been cancer free now for 5 years. What I could understand from the above sentences is "that building was built 5 years ago" and "five years ago she had cancer. Am I right?. Enlighten me on this.
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sun, 12/05/2019 - 13:06

In reply to by Aniyanmon

Hello Aniyanmon Yes, that is correct (with respect to both sentences). All the best Kirk The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by stew on Fri, 03/05/2019 - 07:42

Hi! Are both of these sentences accepted in British English (both formal and informal)? If not, which of them is accepted? I had eaten before you came. I ate before you came.
Hi stew, Both sentences are grammatically possible. The first sentence ('had eaten') would be used as part of a narrative. Imagine the speaker is talking to a friend about an earlier time when the friend came to visit. For example: A: Remember last weekend when I came to see you? I offered you a slice of pizza and you didn't want it. Why not? B: Because I had eaten before you came. ~ The second sentence ('ate') would be used in other situations. Imagine this time that A arrives with a pizza: A: Hi there. I've got a pizza. Do you want a piece? B: No thanks, I ate before you came. ~ Peter The LearnEnglish Team