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

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Submitted by Shanth on Fri, 21/08/2020 - 13:27

How to use past/past perfect tense when referring a letter with date. For example, we had conveyed our approval to the company vide our letter dated 22 August 2018 . Is it correct?

Hi Shanth,

It's a bit difficult to say which tense to use if we only look at a single sentence. That's because the choice of tense also depends on information in other sentences before or after this one.

But, if we just take this sentence alone, it's not correct to use past perfect because there's only one action in the sentence (conveyed our approval). The past perfect is used when there are two past actions, and we want to show clearly which one happened first (see above for more explanation). So, past simple is the right tense for this sentence.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Fahima mahjabin on Wed, 12/08/2020 - 19:59

Would you please explain the rule of this sentence. " First I made the salad, then I toasted with bread". Thanks in advance.

Hello Fahima mahjabin,

In this sentence, the words 'first' and 'then' show a sequence of actions, and we use the past simple after such adverbs. It would be a little unusual to use a past perfect here, but it is possible -- you could say, for example: 'I had made the salad when I toasted the bread.'

Hope this helps.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

we can also say 'I made the salad before I had toasted the bread.' Please correct me If I'm wrong Thanks, The LearnEnglish Team.

Hello kyawkyawsoezhu,

Yes, you could say that, though most of the time we'd say 'I toasted', since 'before' makes the sequence clear. If you were my student, I would recommend 'I toasted' there.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Moses Jena on Wed, 12/08/2020 - 19:55

Perfectly explained. I really appreciate your efforts. But I have a query. As you have mentioned that "we cant use Past tense for a single event". Why it's so? Sentences like- had he closed the shop?- It seems completely fine and making sense also, but this is a single event.

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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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