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 (123 votes)
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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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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.



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 ( 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 ( 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.



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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 04/09/2019 - 07:15

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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.



The LearnEnglish Team