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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Profile picture for user Peter M.

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
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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

Hello Peter, Thank you for the reply. I found the explanation given in the link very useful. Thanks again for all what you do in this forum to help learners. All the best Donald

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Mon, 25/11/2019 - 17:46

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Dear Sir, Can we use the following question when a particular work has not been finished(present perfect) yet. "I thought(It's only my thinking in the past and realizes in the present that the work has not been finished) he had finished the work(past perfect)". Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 27/11/2019 - 07:48

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

'I thought he had finished the work' is grammatically correct. With this sentence, you are expressing your own thinking about the work being finished -- it is irrelevant whether the work is actually finished or not.

Does that answer your question? If not, could you please rephrase it, as I'm not sure I've understood it completely.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lexeus on Sat, 09/11/2019 - 02:42

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Hi Team, Once we have established that we are using the past perfect tense, would it be grammatically correct, to avoid being repetitive, to follow it with the past simple tense, even though we are still talking about the same incident? for example: Tom recalled how Sally had told him of the excitement she felt when she visited the zoo and saw the animals. or does everything have to remain in the past perfect tense? Tom recalled how Sally had told him of the excitement she had felt when she had visited the zoo and had seen the animals. Thanks for your help, Lexeus
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 10/11/2019 - 08:34

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello Lexeus,

The first sentence is fine. There is no need to express everything in the past perfect, and it makes the sentence very clunky.

The past perfect in your example only expresses one relationship: looking back on the act of telling from the perspective of the moment of recall. The rest is not directly linked. In other words, Tom recalls the telling, not the feeling, the visiting or the seeing.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Peter, that has made things a lot clearer for me. Lexeus.
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Submitted by koosha on Thu, 07/11/2019 - 06:47

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The exercises are perfect and useful but if it exists more exercise should be better for me...

Submitted by govegan on Tue, 01/10/2019 - 02:07

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PLEASE, change the example with the cat because it's very offensive. Who can put a cat in a washing machine? It's CRUELTY and I am sure it's a very painful and awful death, murder by the way. Something like that doesn't happen unintentionally. This kind of example is very bad and here is a website for education and not for learn types of kill someone. I am sorry about my message but I had studied here when I just read this and it's shocked me.

Hello govegan

We are currently revising the Intermediate grammar section and this page will be changing quite soon. It's difficult to speculate on the intentions of the people involved and although it's more likely than not that washing the cat was unintentional, I agree that the sentence shows poor taste and so I have changed it. Thanks very much for pointing it out to us and I'm sorry about that.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sun, 29/09/2019 - 12:06

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Dear Sir, Which is right? The medium of instruction was (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. (If we use "was" - will that deny the current reality?) Or The The medium of instruction is (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 30/09/2019 - 06:42

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

The first one is correct since the 'when' clause makes it clear that the sentence is only about the past. I would recommend taking out the comma, though.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mara on Wed, 25/09/2019 - 18:30

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Hello, I am, again, a little bit confused about the use of the past tenses in this example: "The film started before Thomas had arrived" If "start" is the acction that happens first and "arrived" is the acction that happens later, why not saying: "The film had started before Thomas arrived" because he arrived late and the film had already started. Thank yoy in advance.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 26/09/2019 - 08:01

In reply to by mara

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Hello mara,

This is a similar example to the earlier one you posted. As I said in that answer, we sometimes use the past perfect for actions which are not completed.

For example:

The film had started before Thomas arrived.

In this sentence the sequence of the actions is clear: first the film started and then Thomas arrived. Both actions happened.

 

However, if we want to talk about something which did not happen, or which was not complete, then we use the past perfect with before:

The film started before Thomas had arrived.

Here we understand that one action (Thomas arriving) did not happen, or was not complete.

 

It may help to think about this as a structure related to what is sometimes called the third conditional. The past perfect is describing something which is not real, or not complete, just as in a past hypothetical conditional sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter. I have now a clear idea about these uses of the past perfect. The connection with the third conditional is really illustrative and helpful. Thanks a lot

Submitted by Giudg1 on Tue, 24/09/2019 - 20:51

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Is "she had done the dishes before I got home" right? Would be glad if someone answered

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Mon, 23/09/2019 - 13:08

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Dear Sir, Which is right to say? Have you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young? Or Had you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young? Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 24/09/2019 - 07:31

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingsonselvaraj,

Neither is correct. The phrase 'when you were young' tells us that the person is not young now, so the question is about a finished time period. The past simple is the best option:

Were you ever lifted up... when you were young?

The present perfect would be used if we were asking about the person's whole life, not just 'when you were young'.

We have no context for the sentence and no other time point for reference so there is no reason to use a past perfect.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much. I am becoming more confident in my English grammar, because of your help. Regards, kingson

Submitted by mara on Sat, 21/09/2019 - 18:35

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I would like to get some explanation about why the past perfect tense is properly used in this sentence after "before": "I left the dinner table before everybody had finished eating" I have always been taught that when in combination with the past simple, the action that takes place first is expressed in past perfect and the second one in past simple. In the sentence above is quite the opposite. Thank you!

Hello mara,

We can use the past perfect after 'before' when the action started before a certain time in the past, but was not completed.

In your example, the action of eating began before the person left the table. The use of the verb 'finish' is a little confusing, but in the context of eating we think of 'finishing a meal' as a process, not as a single momentary action.

 

Here is another example:

The guests arrived before I had finished preparing dinner.

My preparation began before they arrived, but was not finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much! It's a pleasure to count on such good help

Submitted by Dmevko on Sat, 21/09/2019 - 16:16

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Hello everyone! I'm a little bit confused with the example 'James cooked breakfast when we got up'. If we got up before James coocked breakfast, don't we have to say 'James cooked breakfast when we had gotten up'? Thank in advance.

Hello Dmevko,

The past simple is used for sequential actions, so it is fine to say he did this after we did that.

The past perfect makes clear a connection between two actions in the past. We use the past perfect, for example, when one action is the result of another, or is changed or influenced by another. The past perfect would not be wrong in your example, but there would need to be a reason to emphasise the relationship between the two actions beyond simple chronological sequence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your answer. I have one question about present perfect and present perfect continuous tenses. Unfortunately I can't leave comments in those topics. Could you explain to me here? In the topic about present perfect (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/intermediate-grammar/present-perfect) there is an explonation "2 We also use the present perfect to talk about things that are unfinished – unfinished states and unfinished time periods.". At the same time the topic about present perfect and presen perfect continuous (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/intermediate-grammar/present-perfect-simple-and-continuous) has another explonation "The present perfect simple (I’ve read) gives the idea of completion while the present perfect continuous (I’ve been reading) suggests that something is unfinished.". How to understand this? Which from these two explonations is correct? Do I have to use present perfect to say about unfinished activity in some situations and what these situations are?

Hello Dmevko,

The present perfect describes actions occuring within an unfinished time period, but the action itself may be finished. For example, I use the present perfect in this sentence because the day has not ended yet:

I've read three short stories.

Here, I've finished the book and there is a result (I can tell you about it) but the time period (today) has not finished.

 

I use the present perfect continuous if I want to suggest that the action itself is not finished. For example:

I've been reading this book all morning. It's fascinating!

Here, the book hasn't been finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hell Elysium,

We use the past perfect to refer to a time before another time in the past when there is some connection between the two (cause, influence etc). In other words, the past perfect does not exist in isolation, but always references another action or state, whether explicitly stated or implicit.

In your example it is hard to say why the author used the past perfect because we do not see the whole context in which the sentence is used. This means that we do not know what the connection is between being part of the seminar and another, later, action. It could be that Susan Calvin had been part of... and so was well prepared to do something else, but we cannot see this from the sentence in isolation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Tue, 03/09/2019 - 08:04

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Dear Sir, Is the following sentance correct? I have seen (past happening but current experience) the two headed snakes, when (referring to a past time) I visited (past tense) Vietnam. Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 04/09/2019 - 07:15

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello Kingson,

The sentence is not correct, I'm afraid. We do not use the present perfect (have seen) with a finished past time reference (when I visited). You need two past simple tenses here:

I saw the two headed snakes, when I visited Vietnam.

 

We would use the present perfect if the time reference is unfinished. For example, you could refer to your whole life up to now:

I have seen the two headed snakes in Vietnam.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much Peter for your time and response. Can we say "I have seen two-headed snakes before(unfinished time reference, but in the past with a present experience), when I visited Vietnam"? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

The problem with the sentence is that the phrase 'when I visited Vietnam' provides a finished time reference and so it cannot be used with the present perfect. The present perfect refers to an unfinished time, not a finished time. If you are no longer in Vietnam then that time period is complete and is not consistent with the present perfect.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very, very much Peter for your patience in answering my question. The reason why I am making a doubt around the combination of Past tense and present perfect is, I was told that the following sentence is gramatically correct. "My friend got married to the girl who has been working here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office). In this above sentence "got married" is the past tense. But "has been working" is the present perfect(continuous). Please enlighten me in this regard. Please pardon me, if I give you too much trouble. I am a public speaker that's why I am trying to be crystal clear in my English grammar. Thank you again, Peter. Regards, kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

The sentence 'My friend got married to the girl who has been working here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office' is fine, because the present perfect phrase does not provide a time reference for the past simple action, but simply provides more information about the girl.

 

As an aside, I would say that the sentence is a little odd and the present perfect does not seem to add any information. A more natural way to phrase it would be to use the present simple (permanent work) or continuous (temporary): 'My friend got married to the girl is working/works here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office.'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter. That is really an eye opening fo me. Have you finished (present perfect) reading the book that I gave(past tense) you? - in this sentence, "I gave you" - is this providing more information about the book? Please clarify my doubt. I will be so grateful to you. I appreciate your service. Thank you, again. Regards, kingson

Hello Kingston,

That is correct. Well done!

The past tense gives us information about the book. Grammtically speaking, it is a restrictive or defining relative clause and has an adverbial function. It does not provide a time reference for the verb in the main clause.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much Peter. I really appreciate your patience and service. I am so indebted to you. Please enlighten me in the following. He has questioned her appointment after she broke (past tense) the rules. Could you please tell me what the past tense means here. Has it got any adverbial function or any time reference? Come and tell me after you have seen (Present perfect) her. What is the function of present perfect, here? "Are you the one, who was going to come or do we need to expect another"? Is "who was going to come" an adverbial function? I your previous post you combined the past tense with the present tense. Please see below. My friend got married to the girl is working/works here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office). Has the later part "the girl is working or works here in this office" got an adverbial function? It has not got "who"(girl who is working or who works) in it. Is it still correct without the word "who"?
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 05/08/2019 - 15:25

In reply to by corflz

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Hello corflz

Both forms are possible, but the past simple form is probably better in more contexts than the past continuous form.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 03/08/2019 - 10:45

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Dear Sir, Can I say "My friend got married to a girl who had already been working here in this office" (If the girl is still working the same office currently) Regards kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 04/08/2019 - 21:47

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

It would be strange to say it that way; 'was working' would be the best form for most situations.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 03/08/2019 - 10:44

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Why a simple present tense in the direct speech, becomes a past tense in the indirect speech (eg. Direct - He said to me "She goes to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she went to shop) Whereas the past tense in direct speech becomes past perfect in the indirect speech? (eg. Direct - He said to me "She went to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she had gone to the shop) Is there any difference between these two indirect sentences or do they vary in their meaning? Regards, kingson

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 03/08/2019 - 10:42

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What is the difference between "Are you the one, who was going to come or do we need to expect another" or "Are you the one, who has been going to come or do we need to expect another"?