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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Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 24/02/2018 - 10:38

In reply to by Pavan Kaur

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Hello Pavan,

Those are a lot of questions!

In 1, 'for the last seven years' suggests that Jane is still involved nowadays -- for this reason, the past simple isn't correct. If she is no longer involved now, then you should use a time expression that makes this clear, e.g. 'for seven years' or 'From 2010 to 2017'.

Sentence 2 is the same -- 'last' includes the present time.

In sentence 3 you could say 'got promoted' or 'was promoted' -- they mean the same thing, though 'got' is more informal and might not be appropriate in some contexts. You could also say 'has been promoted', which would suggest that she is still rising in the company as you speak. If you say 'was' or 'got', it makes it sound like her time in the company is finished.

You can read more about the passive voice on our active and passive page.

Many people have different careers at different stages of their lives. For example, I know a musician who used to be a teacher. First he was a teacher and then he switched careers -- he's now a musician.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LittleGranny on Tue, 23/01/2018 - 11:02

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Hi Peter Thank you so much, i understand now. Can i ask you another question? Is this correct to say: "The waiter brought a drink that we didnt order." Or " the waiter brought a drink that we hadnt ordered." Thanks in advance Kind regards Little granny

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 23/01/2018 - 19:36

In reply to by LittleGranny

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Hello Little granny,

Both sentences are correct, but the one with 'hadn't' is a little clearer because it indicates the time sequence more clearly.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LittleGranny on Mon, 22/01/2018 - 09:42

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Hi, Thank you for your replied. "Had you had your breafast?" That is past perfect. Is that when you wanted to ask someone if they had had thier breakfast yesterday morning. Is that correct? "Have you had your breakfast?" Is that present perfect? And is this when someone wanted to ask if they had had breakfast this morning yet.? Does that even make sense? Kind regards Little granny

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 23/01/2018 - 06:06

In reply to by LittleGranny

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Hi LitttleGranny,

Perfect tenses always refer to an action/state before something else. They are not used just because something is far in the past, but must related an action/state to a second time or action. Thus we would only say 'Had you had...' if there was another time relevant to the action. For example:

Did you have breakfast? - We use the past simple because it is a question about the past. It could be able this morning or a morning ten years ago or longer.

Had you had breakfast before he arrived? - Here we use the past perfect because the action is related to another action in the past. Note that this is not just a sequence of activities. In some way the two actions are related.

 

The present perfect works in a similar way except that rather than having an action in the past before another action in the past we have an action in the past which occurs before the present, and is related in some way to the present. For example:

Have you had breakfast? - We use the present perfect because the past action (having breakfast) is related to the present. We are not just asking about breakfast but rather about whether the person is hungry in the present, and this is how the action is related to the present.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LittleGranny on Sun, 21/01/2018 - 12:39

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Hello Peter I am a bit confused with the Had and Have questions. For example; Had you finished your homework before you went to the party? Or Have you finished your homework before you go to the party? When to use the have questions and when to use the had questions? And also is it correct to say Had you had you lunch yet? Kind regards Little Granny

Hello Little Granny,

In the first sentence you ask about only 'had' works (or 'did'). There are so many situations when we used 'had' and 'have', answering your question would take quite a lot of time. Could you please instead look at our past perfect and present perfect pages in the English Grammar? i think that should help you begin to understand this. If you have other questions, you are welcome to ask us, but please make them as specific as possible, as we aren't able to answer such general questions as the one you've asked us here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lara17 on Wed, 17/01/2018 - 13:26

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Hello, Can you please tell me which sentence is correct: Should I use past perfect: Since I had been busy working, I just finished this last night. Or Past simple: Since I was busy with work, I just finished this last night. Thank you.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 18/01/2018 - 07:45

In reply to by lara17

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Hello lara17,

Both forms are possible here and there is no real difference in meaning. I think 'only' would be a better choice than 'just' in this context, however.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter, Thank you so much for your help! :) Regards, Lara

Submitted by Agnesia on Fri, 08/12/2017 - 15:22

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Hello Could you help me, please??? The day before yesterday I had stayed up late. So I overslept and missed my lessons. Am I right with the tenses?? Thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 09/12/2017 - 08:06

In reply to by Agnesia

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Hello Agnesia,

Those tenses are correct. It would also be correct to use the past simple ('stayed') in the first sentence - this is a choice you can make.

I think it would be better to have one sentence with 'so' in the middle rather than two sentences.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Mr. Peter And I have one more question.. Please accept my sincere apologize and I promise that I'll learn the lesson that I have missed. (I'll learn my missed lesson) Are these sentences correct?? Thank you a lot...

Hello Agnesia,

After 'my sincere' you need a noun (apologies), not a verb (apologize). We would probably say study or go over rather than learn in this context and us a past simple (missed) instead of a present perfect form (have missed). The sentence would thus be as follows:

Please accept my sincere apologies and I promise that I'll go over the lesson that I missed.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Mr. Peter M, I need your help Here is a text, in which I have to put the right verb tense.. "Let's go and see what(1. do)... at our new house now, "said Dorothy. The construction of a new house on the same street(2. plan)... for several years. The contractor (3. be)... at work only a few days. "I am sure the whole cellar(4. dig)...by this afternoon and they (5. begin)... to put in the wall, "(6. continue).. Dorothy. I think so 1. (1. do)-is being done 2. (2. plan)-had been planned 3. (3. had been, or was-I am not sure) 4. (4. dig)-will have been dug 5. (5. begin)-will begin 6. (6. continue)- continued. Am I right?? Thank you

Submitted by Marcela Little on Wed, 04/10/2017 - 12:06

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Is it possible to change the order of the facts for example: When Jenny arrived at the airport the plane had taken off Or When the plane had taken off Jenny arrived at the airport. Do both sentences have the same meaning? Is it correct to use both ways?

Hello Marcela,

The first sentence focuses more on describing the situation at the airport at a certain time. The second sentence focuses more on the time that Jenny arrived. It's a subtle difference, which wouldn't be important in many situations, but I'd say the first one is more common in general.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by narjes on Wed, 06/09/2017 - 13:41

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HI , please can u tell me if this sentence is correct? (After we had arrived at the airport,we had discovered that the travel agent changed our hotel).

Hello narjes,

It's difficult to say for sure without knowing the context, but in most cases this sentence would probably not be correct. It would be unusual to use the past perfect for sequential actions (as in this sentence). In any case, the first action in the sequence is the changing of the hotel. I'd recommend something like 'We discovered that the travel agent had changed our hotel after we arrived at the airport'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Zth on Tue, 22/08/2017 - 22:51

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Hello So here "The Romans had spoken Latin" is wrong? And the true type is "The Romans spoked Latin"?

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 23/08/2017 - 08:55

In reply to by Zth

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Hello Zth,

There are contexts in which the past perfect would be appropriate but if you simply stating a historical fact then 'spoke' would be correct.

We use the past perfect when there is a second past time reference. For example, we might say 'The Romans had spoken Latin for centuries before it became the lingua franca of the ancient world'. Context is key here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MCWSL on Fri, 19/05/2017 - 18:00

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Hello, ''I thought she had taken the chairs that John had made'' Could ''John had made'' here refer to the past before ''she'' takes the chairs? Thanks in advance

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 20/05/2017 - 14:35

In reply to by MCWSL

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Hello MCWSL,

Yes, it could. I'd probably just say 'John made' in most situations, though, as it seems obvious that he must have made them before she could possibly take them. But you could use the past perfect to emphasise that fact.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ivarsps on Thu, 20/04/2017 - 14:53

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Hello. I just want to ask one question. May I say "Yesterday I had made three jobs" or I have to say "Yesterday I made three jobs"? Can I use past perfect tense only if it is followed by "before"? Thanks a lot

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 21/04/2017 - 07:08

In reply to by ivarsps

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Hello ivarsps,

The correct form of the sentence here would be:

Yesterday I did three jobs.

The past perfect is used when you are looking back from the past at another action earlier in the past. The key is that the two actions are related in some way, not that the word 'before' is used.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Lee-Ann on Tue, 14/03/2017 - 13:57

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When refering to someone who has passed away; is it possible to say "Jim would have been dead for two years come February"

Hello Lee-Ann,

We use 'would have been' to describe situations which are not true. If Jim is dead then you could say 'Jim would have been 65 years old this year'. If you want to talk about a true/real situation then you would use 'will': 'Jim will have been dead for two years come February'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by learning_always on Wed, 24/08/2016 - 21:49

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Hi, Regarding the following example sentence in this page: "I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together but we’d lost touch with each other" I understand why we used past perfect tense "we had been", however for the next verb "lost", why do we use past perfect as well? does it mean: a) Jim and I went to school together, we lost touch to each other *while* we were at the school. (i.e. lost touch and went to school happened at around the same time, kind of like the other example sentence in this page: "James cooked breakfast when we got up", where "cooked breakfast" and "we got up" happened at the same time) b) Jim and I went to school together, but we lost touch to each other *after* we left the school (probably graduated) (i.e. the event: lost touch, happened after "we went to school together", but before I received the letter) Second question is: If I change "had lost" from past perfect to present perfect simple, is this grammatically correct? i.e. I got a letter from Jim last week. We had been at school together but we *have* lost touch with each other. (if it is grammatically correct, what is the difference between the above sentence and the original?) Thank you.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 25/08/2016 - 07:02

In reply to by learning_always

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Hi learning_always,

Explanation (b) is correct. Getting the letter is the main past time event; the other two actions are past perfect because they happened before this past time and a relevant to it.

The sentence with a present perfect form does not feel right because 'we have lost touch' suggests that it is still true (unfinished past), whereas 'I got a letter' tells us that the speaker is back in touch with Jim again. The issue is not so much grammatical but contextual - there is a conceptual clash here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fyooz on Sun, 14/08/2016 - 16:07

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I had commented before!!

Submitted by fyooz on Sun, 14/08/2016 - 10:06

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Hi ser , Can you help me , I am reading a english book for learning , it name Our Universe by Roy A Galant ,and I found he used the Past Perfect an perfect countuins in this sentence : "By 46 B.C., the calender had fallen hopeleesly out of pace with the seasons ,and Julius Caesar decreed that the lenght of the year should be 365 days plus one extra day every four years. But, by the 1500's ,people realized that the Julian calender had been falling behind the seasons at the rate of one day every 125 years." Why he used them ? , and what the meaning of 1500's ? My Regards

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 15/08/2016 - 07:19

In reply to by fyooz

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Hi fyooz,

I'm afraid we can't explain the uses of given forms by authors from elsewhere, particularly when the passage quoted is part of a much larger context and, in any case, has multiple errors in it.

The phrase 1500s refers to the period of time from 1500 to 1599. It is often used to talk about decades: the sixties (the 60s/he 1960s) etc.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fyooz on Tue, 16/08/2016 - 21:45

In reply to by Peter M.

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Thanks very much for your replys .. If in any case the books have an error so I need to read a book that care with grammer for learning ?

Submitted by fyooz on Tue, 16/08/2016 - 21:59

In reply to by Peter M.

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And another question, sorry ! Do (by the time) or (by 1789) has a relation with past perfect ? And what the meaning of "as well as" ? And dose this book can help me to support my grammer and vocabiolry or there is a book can help me more ? I'm sorry for a big number of qusetion

Submitted by clp920 on Wed, 20/07/2016 - 13:18

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I have deja vu, or first two examples I have just seen on bbc learningenglish. So I have idea how to practise past perfect tense: The BBC had published two sentences about Mary and John before LearnEnglish British Council pasted this examples on its site.

Hello clp920,

That doesn't surprise me – 'Mary' and 'John' are extremely common names and are probably used in many, many example sentences. Anyway, we're glad you've joined us.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by maynaing on Thu, 14/07/2016 - 10:52

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Please make me confirm between Present perfect vs Past perfect. Present perfect must rely on present time and past perfect must rely on past time, is it correct?

Hello maynaing,

I'm afraid this is much too complex a question to answer in such a short comment! The present perfect related the past to the present in a number of ways, which you can see on our page on the present perfect. The past perfect is similar, but relates an earlier past to a later past, as you can see on our page on the past perfect. You might also find this page on the perfective aspect in general useful.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aisha_aamir on Thu, 09/06/2016 - 15:12

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Why is it that the instructions say "DO NOT USE CONTINUOUS TENSES. And yet after my quiz, I had mistakes so i clicked on the "Show Answers" and some answers were "had been burgled"... etc,... ? -- #confused

Hello aisha_aamir,

Continuous tenses are those which use 'be + verb-ing', such as 'I am going' or 'He will be sleeping'. The example you give ('had been burgled') is a past perfect passive form, not a continuous form.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ajaz ajju on Fri, 20/05/2016 - 04:55

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Hello sir Can we use past perfect for single sentence? Eg : I had watched the movie

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 20/05/2016 - 06:28

In reply to by Ajaz ajju

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Hello Ajaz ajju,

The past perfect needs a past time context - it must refer to a past time, showing an action or state which is before that past time. However, that context does not need to be in the same sentence. It could be in another sentence, or it could be implied by the topic of discussion.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nasder on Wed, 06/04/2016 - 19:14

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Hello, i have a question in mind . can we use the past perfect with the present ? because i came across these sentence: 1. we had studied six new tenses so far and we are going to learn more this semester. 2.Bob wants to buy a new car. He had owned this one for ten years. 3. linda is still sick. She had had a bad cold for over a week. is this perhaps aa exception for " historic present" ?!!

Hello nasder,

Perfect forms are dependent on time-relations, and so the context is important, and it is hard to be completely sure when looking at sentences in isolation.

We use the past perfect for actions or events which had an effect in the past. Your first sentence describes an activity which has an effect in the present and so the present perfect would seem to be appropriate:

We have studied six new tenses so far and we are going to learn more this semester.

The same is true for the other two sentences. Where an action or state is still true at the time of speaking, or where it has a result at the time of speaking, we use the present perfect rather than the past perfect. To use the past perfect there needs to be another past time reference.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

 

Submitted by K_H on Sun, 13/12/2015 - 10:08

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Hi, I've learned that the present perfect cannot be used with when-question. How about the past perfect? Is it possible to use it in when-questions? If possible, what kind of context allows it to occur? Regards, K_H

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 13/12/2015 - 13:39

In reply to by K_H

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Hello K_H,

Most of the time, that's probably true, but I'm not sure I'd say that it's true that the present perfect is never used with 'when'. For example, 'When have I ever lied to you?' is correct. I can't think of a 'when' question that uses the past perfect off the top of my head, but I expect there may be some situations when it would be appropriate.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by David Chan on Mon, 02/11/2015 - 04:05

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Hi teachers, "Product development of the watch had begun in March 2014 and the team launched a marketing campaign to sell it on 13 June 2015." The sentence above uses past perfect to tell us that product development comes before its launch. My question: Is that necessary to use past perfect here? (1) It is not important to tell the sequence of the two actions (product development and launching) in the sentence. Of course a product needs to be developed before launching. (2) Specific time is given for the two actions (March 2014 and 13 June 2015). No ambiquity is there at all. (3) Using simple past tense for both actions can do the job. Please kindly advise. Thank you.

Hello David,

You are right – it is not necessary to use the past perfect here and the past simple would work just as well for the reasons you describe.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team