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 (126 votes)

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

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

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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sat, 08/08/2020 - 14:18

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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,


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Kirk. Regards, kingson

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

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

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.
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