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 (127 votes)
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 25/07/2020 - 08:31

In reply to by Shreya


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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sat, 25/07/2020 - 14:22

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Wed, 29/07/2020 - 09:22

In reply to by Kirk Moore

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
Profile picture for user Karan Narang

Submitted by Karan Narang on Sat, 18/07/2020 - 04:34

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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 15/06/2020 - 14:25

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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


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
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 16/06/2020 - 07:03

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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.



The LearnEnglish Team