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

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Average: 4 (4 votes)

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
Profile picture for user Kirk

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.
Profile picture for user Peter M.

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