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 (122 votes)
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 26/09/2019 - 08:01

In reply to by mara


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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

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
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 24/09/2019 - 07:31

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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.



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

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.



The LearnEnglish Team