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 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"?

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

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"?

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 02/08/2019 - 13:23

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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 have been going to come or do we need to expect another"?

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 02/08/2019 - 04:52

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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? Regards, kingson

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 02/08/2019 - 04:46

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Dear Peter, Can I say "My friend got married married to a girl who had already been working here" (If the girl is still working the office currently) Regards kingson

Submitted by Englishlearner123 on Tue, 23/07/2019 - 19:58

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Hello Kirk. Thank you the explanation was extremely clear. But I am confused a little about the next statement: I am wondering why the past perfect continuous is used here instead of the past continuous. "-I knew a man who tried to cheat in an exam by writing all the answers on the sole of his shoes. -Did he pass? -No. It had been raining, so the ink had washed off. " Is it possible to use both perfect and perfect continuous tenses here and why? Sorry for disturbing you. Thanks in advance

Hello Englishlearner123

Yes, that sentence is perfectly natural and correct. In this case, the continuous form is describing the background situation (which is a common usage of the continuous aspect) and the simple form is clarifying the relative sequence of events.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Mon, 01/07/2019 - 20:14

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Dear Sir, I have seen the following question and answer in a spoken English book. Kindly tell me whether the answer of the question is correct. As far as I know "should have" is used as an advice. For example "You should have gone there". It is used in past situations. But in the following answer "should have" is used in a future situation. How is it possible sir?. So can I say now "today evening I should have left this place" (suppose now the time is 10 'o clock in the morning). Que:Will you have passed tenth class examination by the next year? Ans:Yes, I should have passed it by that time. Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

We're happy to help you, but please remember two important things: 1) we ask that you try to ask your question on a relevant page and 2) we don't promise to explain grammar from other sources.

It's easy to find a page on modal verbs or modals with 'have', for example.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Coffin Dodger on Mon, 01/07/2019 - 17:21

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Hello, I'm ever sorry to bother, but I got confused a little. Let's Imagine that yesterday I went to a club and I'm telling my buddie a story. A) " Listen, from the momemt I had entered, she had not taken her eyes off of me. But then, suddenly, she got up and approached me. " B) " From the moment I had moved to London, I hadn't had a friend. I was alone then. "

Hello Coffin Dodger

You can use the past perfect like that. People often use the past simple instead of the past perfect when that is possible. That is the case here, i.e. you could use the past simple in place of the past perfect in all of those verbs.

If you had a different questions, please let us know.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Sat, 29/06/2019 - 04:31

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Thanks a lot Kirk Sir for your clarification.

Submitted by Garry301 on Fri, 28/06/2019 - 18:31

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My query is this Sir, I have come across this only sentence, 'It was the first time they had met/ met.' which tense to use, had met or met, only?

Hello Garry301

Both are possible, but if I had to choose one, I'd say 'had met'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Fri, 28/06/2019 - 16:31

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Dear Sir, I would like to know which of the following sentences is grammattically correct. Can we use "since" in simple past tense as in the first sentence. Enlighten me on this. 1.He wanted to be an actor ever since he was a teenager. 2.He has wanted to be an actor ever since he was a teenager. Thank you.

Hello again Aniyanmon

Does he still want to be an actor now, i.e. at the time you say this sentence? If so, only 2 is correct.

I'd suggest avoiding the past simple in the main clause of a sentence that has a 'since' clause, as it's usually not correct. If you were speaking about a person who no longer wants to be an actor, but did want to be one at one point in his life, then I'd suggest something like 'He wanted to be an actor from his teenage years until he finished university' (for example).

You might be interested in reading through the 'Since' page in the Cambridge Dictionary's Grammar section.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Thu, 27/06/2019 - 17:59

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Dear Sir, I would like to ask one question to you. "I have been ill for some time now". Does it mean that "I have not been ill for some days now". My doubt is whether "some time" and "some days" have the same meaning. Enlighten me on this. Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

'some time' is quite a vague expression -- it could mean for a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even longer. The context, including the person who says it, would in theory help you understand how long.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Zhao on Thu, 27/06/2019 - 06:25

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Dear Sir May i ask you to correct if i am wrong. From my opinion, the "perfect" tense essentially would deliver the meaning of unfinished state, or in a certain unfinished period. Based on different context, can I express as followings Case 1: Context: I used to enjoy apple, but gradually did not like it after some years(not certain), so eventually, i do not like it now. Express: I ate apples, which i had enjoyed since i was a child, and vegetables from my garden. Case 2 Context: Apple is my favorite fruit always. Express: 1. I ate apples, which I have enjoyed since I was a child, and vegetables from my garden. Or even use the simple present tense to express "Apple is my favorite food" as a habit 2. I ate apples, which I enjoy since i was a child, and vegetables from my garden. Thx in advanced for your comment

Hello Zhao

I'd suggest you take a look at our Perfect aspect page, where the meaning of the perfect aspect in general is explained and there are detailed explanations of both the present perfect and past perfect.

Your first two sentences are grammatically correct, but in the third one it's not correct to say 'enjoy' (in the present simple tense) with the time expression 'since'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Thu, 20/06/2019 - 04:02

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Dear Sir, I would like to know which of the following expressions exactly say I have become a fan of boxer Mr.Tyson Fury after his impressive win over Mr.Schwarz (happened four days ago). Earlier I didn't like him. I have been a fan of Tyson Fury. I am a fan of Tyson Fury. Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

Neither one clearly expresses what you explain. I would probably just say what you said in your explanation, but you could also say something like 'I am now a fan of Tyson Fury' or 'I have become a fan after that fight'.

Hope that helps.

Best wishes

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aniyanmon on Tue, 18/06/2019 - 16:11

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Dear sir, I would like to know the meaning of the following sentences. 1.I have been able to speak English. 2.I have been able to study well. Actually what do the above sentences mean? Can I speak English now? Could I study well?. Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

It's difficult to say without at least knowing the context, but, for example, 1 could be something an English student said. For example, imagine one of my Spanish students went to study in the UK and I visited him there after he'd been there a few weeks. He might say something like 1 to me to refer to his time in the UK.

Knowing exactly what 2 means is also context dependent. Maybe someone who lives in a noisy house full of people would say this. Or it could be someone who's been ill and didn't expect to be able to concentrate. In either case, they are speaking about a period of time that began sometime in the past and which has just finished or is still continuing at the moment of speaking.

You can see more examples of this on our Present perfect page.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hank on Thu, 13/06/2019 - 17:58

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Dear sir, I would like to know if these sentences are correct or not. Initially, he had suffered from arthritis for 3 days. A month later, his symptoms had not improved. Today, he is still in pain. Thank you sir.

Hello Hank,

Although it's hard to be sure without knowing the full context, I would suggest the following:

Initially, he suffered from arthritis for 3 days. A month later, his symptoms had not improved. Today, he is still in pain.

The first sentence is simply a statement about a finished past time so past simple is required. We use past perfect when we are looking back from a later (past) date, as in the second sentence where we are looking back from 'a month later' to the period before.

You can read more about the past perfect on these pages:

Talking about the past

Past perfect

Perfect aspect

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sharma Harry on Thu, 06/06/2019 - 15:46

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Dear Sir, I am confused regarding the grammar part of following sentence, please correct it: Barack Obama had taught for twelve years in Chicago University; even he had not known that one day he would have been president of the USA. OR Barack Obama had taught for twelve years in Chicago University; even he did not have known that he would have been president of the USA.

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

In reply to by Sharma Harry

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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

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

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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.
Hello Aniyanmon They are all correct. The sentences without 'while' have what's called a participle clause. You can read more about them on https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/intermediate-grammar/participle-clauses. All the best Kirk The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

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

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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.
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

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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

Submitted by AminulIslam. on Sat, 27/04/2019 - 17:01

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Dear sir M peter I have some confusion about using time conjunction -before and after. which one is correct and why? 1.He will come after she goes. 2.He will come after she has gone. would you please mention all uses of before and after as a conjunction. my last question is.. Before can be used in future perfect? please give some examples.