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 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

 

Language level

Do you need to improve your English grammar?
Join thousands of learners from around the world who are improving their English grammar with our online courses.
Average: 4 (4 votes)
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 21/06/2020 - 07:16

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

Permalink

Hello kingson,

The past perfect needs to reference a second action in the past as it shows an action before another action in the past. It's not enough to simply have a past time reference; you need a second action (state/situation etc).

The past continuous needs to be placed in the past by a past time reference (a time reference, for example). This may be explicitly stated or implicit in the context.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter. When you say (in your answer) "past continuous", I understand, it includes past perfect continuous as well. "I do not know how long she had been learning spanish" - in this example, I think, the past time reference is implicitly expressed. Is that correct? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello again kingson,

My apologies. I must have misread your question as I thought you were asking about the past continuous, not the past perfect continuous.

 

Perfect forms always refer backwards. They are retrospective in that sense. Thus, the present perfect looks back from the present, the future perfect looks back from a point in the future and the past perfect looks back from a point in the past towards some time or event further in the past.

 

This means that there must be a second past time reference when using the past perfect. This could be an action or a state, or simply a past time such as a date. It could be explicitly stated or implicit in the context, but it must be understood.

 

All of this is true of both the simple and continuous forms of the past perfect. Both require a second past time reference point.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team 

Thank you so much Peter, When you say the continuous form of the past perfect needs a second past time reference, please let me know, where is the past time reference in the following sentence. "I do not know how long she had been learning Spanish." Is it (past time reference) implied or expressed explicitly? And How? Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, again kingson

Hello kingson

I don't see any past time reference in that sentence. Presumably, this would have been stated in the context, e.g. it might have been mentioned in the previous sentence or two.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, Sorry to bother you with the same questions. But I would like to know for sure. The sentence with a present tense can have a past perfect continuous tense (eg. I do not (present tense) know how long she had been learning (past perfect continuous tense) Spanish). And a sentence with a present tense cannot have a past perfect tense (eg. I do not know (Present tense) how he had done(past perfect) it) Am I right in my understanding? Please explain and enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 29/06/2020 - 07:53

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

Permalink

Hello kingson,

The past perfect describes an action in the past in relation to another action later in the past. Thus any past perfect form requires a second past time reference point. That could be in the same sentence or it could be in another sentence, or it could be simply understood from the broader context. There is no rule that a past perfect cannot be used with a present verb form. It depends on the context and whether or not there is a second past time reference.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Excellent! You have answered my question. Thank you very much Peter for that. So, I understand that the following sentence is correct, if there is a past time reference in the following sentence (or) the past time reference is broadly understood in the context it is used. Please let me know whether I am correct or not. Sentence: I do not know (Present tense) how he had done(past perfect) it). Please also let me know whether the following example is correct or not. Example sentences: John went (past time reference in the previous/first sentence) to U.S.A few years ago. But I do not know(present tense) how he had completed(past perfect) his Visa process. Thank you, again. Regards, kingson

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 06/06/2020 - 10:29

Permalink
Dear Sir, Which one of the following is correct? The children are going to school from Monday, last week. The children have been going to school since/from Monday, last week. Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson
Profile picture for user Kirk

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 06/06/2020 - 14:53

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

Permalink

Hello kingson

The second one is correct if you use 'since'. 

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team