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 Kirk

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 13/09/2020 - 14:00

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Your sentence 'I have been noticing your progress and found out that you have done well' still sounds a little strange to me because it's not clear to me what you mean. For example, 'have been noticing' implies you started this noticing in the past and are still doing it now, but then 'found out' implies you only discovered progress in the past, yet then the sentence goes on to a present perfect reference, which implies they did well recently -- but is it after the time you stopped finding out? I was imagining a teacher praising their students for their continual progress and so the past simple threw me off. But maybe I've misunderstood?

Without knowing the situation you are describing and what exactly you want to say, it's really difficult to give feedback about verb tenses, since there's quite a range of possible uses and meanings for each. We'll still do our best to help as we have time to do so here, but if you are able to get help from a teacher you can speak with, I think you'd find it much easier.

I hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Kirk for your concerning answer. Yes, I cannot explain the whole situation, because it will take much time for you to read it. So as you said it will be good idea to consult with a teacher. I have lot of similar doubts to ask. So please let me know, if you have a program that I can engage with, so that I can talk/chat to a teacher. I have already noticed that there is a course for 5.99 pounds per month in your company. Will that be a useful course for me? please guide me in this line. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hi kingson,

Our self-access courses, which are available to our subscribers and cost £5.99 per month, are not led by teachers and at least for now, there is nowhere to ask questions in them. So I wouldn't recommend that for this particular purpose.

The British Council English Online courses are online group classes led by teachers. You would be able to ask short questions in such a class, but I'm not sure you'd be able to ask long ones. They are also more expensive.

You can also get one-on-one help from a tutor. The first session costs £1, but I'm afraid I don't know how long it is or how much they cost after that.

You might be able to find an English teacher near where you live whom you could work with -- that would probably be the surest way to get the kind of help you are looking for.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Tue, 01/09/2020 - 13:39

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Dear Team, Can we frame the sentences as follows. "I thought (past tense) that you might have gone (past future perfect) to the movie that I saw (past tense) last week." "I thought (past tense) that you might have thought (past future perfect) that John is (present tense) a wonderful person to approach." Please let me know whether the above sentences are correct or not and why. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 01/09/2020 - 13:49

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Both sentences are grammatically correct -- well done! I wouldn't use the term 'past future perfect', though.

If you have a specific question about one of them, please let us know.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Reemtb on Tue, 25/08/2020 - 00:33

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Hello Mr. I have a question. She has never been to Canada before. She had never seen a real live elephant before. Why did they use present perfect in the first sentence, and they use past perfect in the second on? What the difference between both of them?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 25/08/2020 - 08:47

In reply to by Reemtb

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Hello Reemtb,

The present perfect tells us about something which happened in the past but is still true and still relevant in the present. It describes something in the past from the point of view of the present. Thus, in your example the speaker is describing the woman's whole life up to now.

 

The past perfect is similar but instead of relating the past to the present, it relates a past event to later past time. Thus, it needs two past time points: past and futher past. The two events must be related in some way. Thus, in your example, the speaker is describing the woman's whole life up to some point in the past. That point is not mentioned in the sentence but would be indicated in the context in which the sentence is used.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank Mr a lot. So if I used present perfect in the second sentence, it wouldn't be wrong. She has never seen a real elephant before.

Hello again Reemtb,

Yes, that would be fine. It would refer to her whole life up to the moment of speaking.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Viktoriano96 on Sun, 23/08/2020 - 05:40

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Hello. Could you please explain why past perfect is used in this sentence? Is it because of adverb "Just"? Thanks In the four summers from 2015 to 2018, Irish League clubs had secured just six victories from 42 European games.

Hello Viktoriano96,

Perfect forms are very much context dependent and it's not possible to say why the past perfect is used here without knowing the broader context in which the sentence appears. In the sentence as written, the past simple is also possible. I would imagine that there is another past time reference somewhere in the text which provided a point from which the speaker/writer is looking back, but this is not clear from the sentence alone.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Shanth on Fri, 21/08/2020 - 13:27

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How to use past/past perfect tense when referring a letter with date. For example, we had conveyed our approval to the company vide our letter dated 22 August 2018 . Is it correct?

Hi Shanth,

It's a bit difficult to say which tense to use if we only look at a single sentence. That's because the choice of tense also depends on information in other sentences before or after this one.

But, if we just take this sentence alone, it's not correct to use past perfect because there's only one action in the sentence (conveyed our approval). The past perfect is used when there are two past actions, and we want to show clearly which one happened first (see above for more explanation). So, past simple is the right tense for this sentence.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Fahima mahjabin on Wed, 12/08/2020 - 19:59

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Would you please explain the rule of this sentence. " First I made the salad, then I toasted with bread". Thanks in advance.

Hello Fahima mahjabin,

In this sentence, the words 'first' and 'then' show a sequence of actions, and we use the past simple after such adverbs. It would be a little unusual to use a past perfect here, but it is possible -- you could say, for example: 'I had made the salad when I toasted the bread.'

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

we can also say 'I made the salad before I had toasted the bread.' Please correct me If I'm wrong Thanks, The LearnEnglish Team.

Hello kyawkyawsoezhu,

Yes, you could say that, though most of the time we'd say 'I toasted', since 'before' makes the sequence clear. If you were my student, I would recommend 'I toasted' there.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Moses Jena on Wed, 12/08/2020 - 19:55

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Perfectly explained. I really appreciate your efforts. But I have a query. As you have mentioned that "we cant use Past tense for a single event". Why it's so? Sentences like- had he closed the shop?- It seems completely fine and making sense also, but this is a single event.

Hi Moses Jena,

Yes, the past perfect event must refer to another event or time in the past. If we say Had he closed the shop?, it must refer to another past event (e.g. Had he closed the shop before X happened?). That's the meaning of the structure, and the reason why it can't show a single event.

But, the other past event may or may not be in the same sentence. It could be, for example, in a previous sentence in the conversation.

  • Bill's shop was robbed last night. It seems the door had been left open. Had he closed the shop properly?

In this example, the last sentence only shows one action, in the past perfect. But it's clearly referring to closing the shop before the robbery, and readers or listeners would understand it as referring to that rather than being a single, isolated action.

If there's no reference to another past event, one of these options should be used.

  • past simple: Did he close the shop?
  • present perfect: Has he closed the shop?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Moses Jena on Wed, 12/08/2020 - 16:46

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As you mentioned that we cant use past perfect tense while we are talking about a single event. so why we can't do that? Sentences like "Had you not gone to the cinema?" seems right.

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 08/08/2020 - 09:49

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Dear Team, Please enlighten me in this regard. "Come and see me after you have finished your work" Here the present perfect is used, but the work has not been finished yet. Could you please explain to me why we use present perfect in this sentence for a work that has not been done/finished yet. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 08/08/2020 - 14:18

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

In time clauses that refer to the future, we typically use present tense forms (usually the present simple, but also the present perfect) to refer to the future action -- see the first paragraph of the Talking about the future section on this page.

In this case, the present perfect puts a little more emphasis on the action being finished (in the future), but otherwise there is no difference in meaning.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

That's very good, Kirk. The link was useful. I learnt a bit more about the present perfect. "When you have finished the work you can go to sleep" Here also the present perfect gives an emphasis (on finishing the work)? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson,

Good, I'm glad. The grammar in this sentence is the same as the other one you asked about earlier. There is a very slight emphasis on 'you' finishing the work, but basically 'when you have finished the work' is another way of saying 'when the work is finished' (or 'has been finished').

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 30/07/2020 - 12:55

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Dear Sir, Which is right ? and why? 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) In the similar way please find the following sentences. Which is right ? and why? 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) Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Shreya on Fri, 24/07/2020 - 14:13

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Hello. While I was reading an article on BBC news I came across this sentence: "The gardening group said limiting visitor numbers had seen it cut the number of people that could attend drastically." I don't understand why have they used Past Perfect in the sentence and mainly I am still confused with the meaning of the sentence itself.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 25/07/2020 - 08:31

In reply to by Shreya

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Hello Shreya,

The sentence does not look fully grammatical to me. In particular, I can't see what it refers to in the middle of the sentence.

Perfect forms are highly dependent on context and it's hard to comment on the use of the past perfect without knowing how the events in a particular sentence fit into the broader context of other past events as described in the rest of the text. It could be that had seen is used here because it is part of a reported speech construction, with the direct speech being 'limiting visitor numbers saw...,' but I can't be sure from just the decontextualised sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 23/07/2020 - 03:44

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Dear Team, I have got three questions. Question 1. I just came across an incident, where I struggled to convey a simple message. My friend forgot to take his mobile phone with him to work. But he told me that he had taken the phone, WHEN HE LEFT THE HOUSE. Therefore I found the phone on the table at home and said to others at home that "Oh! he said he (my friend) has taken the phone." Please let me know whether my sentence is correct or not. And please let me know "should I have used "had taken" instead of "has taken." And in my introductory note (in bold letters) I have mentioned "............when he left the house" Please let me know should I have mentioned "when he had left the house" instead of " when he left the house" Question 2. Which of the following sentences is correct? And why? "He has been doing it since he was born." "He has been doing it since he has been born" Question 3. Please 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, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 25/07/2020 - 14:22

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hi kingson,

Re: question 2, the first sentence is correct, and the second one is not. Religious or metaphorical rebirths aside, we are born only once, and it's always in a past time. I can't think of any situation where the present perfect would be used with 'to be born'.

As for your other questions, please remember that while we try to be as helpful as we can with your questions about sentences you have written or found, we just can't explain everything. It just takes too much of the limited time we have for responding to comments. But I will give you very brief answers. For the first situation, you should say 'had taken' or 'took' and not 'has taken', and 'when he left home'. The past perfect isn't correct in the general context you describe in your third question.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, I understand that there are some constraints, while you are trying to help a large number of people. But please remember that your service in invaluable. I have learnt a lot by your answers and am becoming stronger in English grammar and vocabulary. Your knowledge in this field is also so amazing. In relation to perfect tenses, so far I have had the idea that it is depending upon the "(present, past and future) tenses" of the sentence, used. But now only I understand it is depending upon "the broader context of other past events as described in the rest of the text (I actually took this thought from your answer to the previous comment from Shreya) ." So thank you very much for all your kind services. Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Karan Narang on Sat, 18/07/2020 - 04:34

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It nice to learn or understand the past tense or past perfect but I have a doubt. When we talk about past situation as I did some work in yesterday and next day tell someone about what did I do yesterday then which past tense I can Use past simple or past perfect. Because we use past simple just I have done some work that thing I can't understand some time for using.

Hello Karan Narang,

When we are describing a completed action in the past we generally use the past simple.

The past perfect is only used when there are two past time references and we want to show that one preceded the other and in some way influenced it. The past perfect can be thought of as expressing something in the past before another action in the past.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Mon, 15/06/2020 - 10:51

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Dear Kirk, From the link you sent me on "continuous forms", I found the following sentence. It has got the "past perfect" (had been learning) with a "simple present tense" (Do not know). My understanding is, normally we use the past perfect, if there is a chance of a "past referal point" (or past tence) in the sentance or in the following sentences. But here we only use simple presentence comes with the past perfect. Could you please explain to me further on it? My question here is - Can we use a past perfect, when there is a simple presentence? (ex: I think he had finished his work) "I don't know how long she had been learning Spanish." Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 15/06/2020 - 14:25

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

The form 'had been learning' is a past perfect continuous. There are different possible meanings, but in general it describes actions or events which started before a reference point in the past and which were still happening up to that time. In theory, all of the possible uses on the Continuous aspect page also apply here.

Imagine that our friend Nancy took a Spanish language exam last week and got a high mark. If we didn't know she was a student of Spanish, we might say something like that sentence: 'I don't know how long she had been learning Spanish'.

Does that make sense?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, Thank you very much for your patience to answer all my questions. Few months ago,one of my friends, John started a business and lost lot of money in it. I did not know anything about it. Another friend asked me as to how much John lost in his business. Can I say "I do not know how much John had lost (past perfect) in his business." Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 16/06/2020 - 07:03

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

The past perfect requires a second past time reference, but in your sentence you have only a present time reference (I do not know). Therefore, the past perfect is not possible here. You could use a present perfect or a past simple form:

I do not know how much John has lost in his business.

I do not know how much John lost in his business.

The first sentence (has lost) tells us that the business still exists and is still losing money.

The second sentence (lost) tells us that you are talking only about a past event, so the business either no longer exists, or is no longer losing money, or else you simply have no information about more recent results.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, It looks like that the past perfect needs a past reference. And the past perfect continuous does not need necessarily a past reference. Am I correct in my understanding ? Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 21/06/2020 - 07:16

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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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

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

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

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

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, Thank you very much for your reply. From your answer I can infer that if I use "from" , then the first sentence can also be correct. Is that right? My understanding is if we use "have been going", it means it is temporary. But in this case, the children are going to school for the rest of their school life, so it cannot be temporary. So my opinion is we cannot use "have been going." Please let me know whether my opinion is right or wrong. Thanks, again. Regards, kingson