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 (97 votes)

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,


The LearnEnglish Team


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

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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Tue, 01/09/2020 - 13:49

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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

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?
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 25/08/2020 - 08:47

In reply to by Reemtb


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.



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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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.



The LearnEnglish Team