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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Language level

B1 English level (intermediate)

Hello Arcasso,

In this context there is no difference. The use of the conjunction before removes any possible ambiguity as to the sequence of the actions, so using the past perfect does not change anything.

If before is not used then there may be a difference. For example:

1. I finished eating and the waiter took my plate away.

2. I had finished eating and the waiter took my plate away.

Sentence 1 describes a sequence of actions and we may infer that one followed immediately or very shortly after the other. In sentence 2, the implication is that there is not only a sequence but also a connection between the two actions: taking the plate away was dependent on the first action (finishing the meal). In other words, the first sentence could describe two entirely unconnected but sequential actions, while the second sentence shows a connection of some kind.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Adamfirstttt on Sat, 24/10/2020 - 14:14

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First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread. Why I couldn't choose past perfect (had made)?
We don't need Past Perfect here because there is a simple sequence of events that happened successively, one by one, the idea of precedence is irrelevant here. E.g. We came home late in the evening. He had supper, read the newspaper and went to bed -> a list of events in the past. BUT if we want to stress the idea of precedence we can use Past Perfect. In this case some adverbs will come in handy. E.g. After the sun had set, we decided to return home.

Submitted by Abdul Azeez Ibrahim on Wed, 21/10/2020 - 05:44

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Meanwhile, the Indian Consulate said around 300 Indian passengers had been stopped at the airport so far. “Around 80 were allowed entry later. I have a confusion with the above sentence. I thought "so far" could be used only with Present perfect tense(Passengers have been stopped at the airport so far).Is it appropriate to use had been in this case ? Thank you very much in advance.

Hello Abdul Azeez Ibrahim,

It's true that 'so far' usually refers to the present, which is why it's most often used with the present perfect, but I'm not sure it's completely wrong to use it in this way. If I were writing that, I'd probably replace it with 'until that point' or some similar phrase so as to avoid using 'so far'.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Via on Sat, 17/10/2020 - 07:24

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Hello, What is the difference between these 2 sentences? e.g, This is the oldest building in the town. It'd been built over 200 years ago. e.g, This is the oldest building in the town. It was built over 200 years ago. Based on my understanding, "was" indicated the situation which is no longer true. But "had" indicated something that happened before some specific time. Thanks a lot.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 19/10/2020 - 07:45

In reply to by Via

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Hello Via,

Your understanding is correct.

As you say, the past perfect (had been built) indicates that an action in the past happened before and was connected in some way to a second, later action. That means it does not exist in isolation without a second time reference; without this, the past perfect does not make sense.

 

Without any context to indicate a second time reference, only the sentence with the past simple (was built) makes sense here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ER on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 13:15

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Hello The following sentence uses Past Perfect Tense even though it contains only 1 action from the past. Is it correct? Had the show started already?
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Submitted by Jonathan R on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 16:29

In reply to by ER

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Hi ER,

If we look at the sentence alone, it's not correct because, as you point out, there's only one past action in it. It would need to be in the past simple or present perfect tense.

 

But, do you know the context of this sentence? What are the other sentences in the conversation? It may be correct if another sentence mentions a past action which this sentence also refers to. For example: We arrived at 7 p.m. and we could hear music. Had the show started already? In this case, the use of the past perfect is correct. 

 

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 16/10/2020 - 23:17

In reply to by Jonathan R

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Dear Jonathan, Your answer made me to think more. So far I have heard that the past perfect needs a past action reference. But in your answer you mentioned that we could have a present prefect (reference)to have a past perfect tense in a sentence. Could you please give me an example for this? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

That's not quite it. The present perfect isn't for the referred-to action. What I wanted to say was that the present perfect is an option to correct the verb tense in the original sentence. If we analyse the sentence alone (i.e. without the context of any other sentences in the conversation), the tense needs to change to one of these options.

  • Did the show start already? (past simple)
  • Has the show started already? (present perfect)

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by DaniWeebKage on Mon, 05/10/2020 - 21:09

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As your explanation Sir Peter, We use Past Perfect when there are two past time references (then and before then) and the earlier action has influence or affects to the later action. We use Past simple when there is one single event or sequence of actions(which do not influence or affect to the later action) Am I correct Sir? Also, correct me like before.

Hello DaniWeebKage,

Yes, I think that's a reasonable summary. The context is always important, of course, as a second time may be implied rather than explicitly stated.

We don't correct posts on LearnEnglish. I know correction is very useful, but we have many thousands of users and reply to many comments every day. It's just not possible for us to correct user posts, unfortunately.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by DaniWeebKage on Tue, 29/09/2020 - 12:22

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Dear Team, I'm so confused with Past Perfect and Past Simple. Which Sentence would be correct? "Blinding Lights" makes me feel the time that I'd not even lived in (past perfect) Or "Blinding Lights" makes me feel the time that I didn't even live in (Past simple)
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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 30/09/2020 - 07:30

In reply to by DaniWeebKage

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Hello DaniWeebKage,

Your example isn't a well structured sentence, I'm afraid. I'll try and reformulate it below and then comment on the verb form.

 

"Blinding Lights" makes me feel like I'm in a time that I didn't even live in.

We use the past simple here because we have only one past time reference.

We use the past perfect when we have two past time references: then and before then. If the sentence were about how you felt in the past then the past pefect could be used:

"Blinding Lights" made me feel like I was in a time that I hadn't even live in.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank You, Sir, But I was wondering If I could use Present Perfect instead. I've read Present Perfect shows Experiences. Then, Sir, "Blinding lights" makes me feel like I am in a time that I haven't even lived in. Does it correct? Thanks again, Sir, Stay Safe

Hello DaniWeebKage,

Yes, that is grammatically possible. The sentence is describing a feeling or an impression rather than something concrete in the world, so there's a lot of ambiguity in terms of what it is supposed to mean.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kyawkyawsoezhu on Sun, 20/09/2020 - 09:59

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Can I change this sentence "We'd finished all the water before we were halfway up the mountain." to 'Past perfect with before' with this sentence "We drank/finished all the water before we had arrived at the top of the mountain."

Hello kyawkyawsoezhu,

You could use either the past perfect (we had finished) or the past simple (we finished) here. The past simple shows a sequence of actions; the past perfect connects the actions in some way, emphasising that the earlier action had some kind of influence or effect on the later action.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 10/09/2020 - 12:19

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Dear Team, Is the following sentence correct? "I have been noticing (present perfect continuous) your progress and found out (past tense) that you have done well (present perfect tense)." Can we use present perfect continuous, past and present perfect in a single sentence like this? Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 10/09/2020 - 16:17

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

It is possible to use the tenses you mention in the same sentence, though of course they can mean different things. I'm not sure what the exact situation and meaning you intend here are, but if I am imagining them correctly, I'd recommend something like 'You have done well and I have noticed your progress' (if that sounds appropriate to you).

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, I am just writing a little story for some people at my place. That's why I am just caught up by the doubt. I always understand that the tenses we use in a sentence should go along. Say for an example, in a reported speech we say "John told (past) me that Sam bought (past) a book." (in the direct speech - John said to me, "Sam buys a book.") . Here we are changing the present tense (buys) into past tense (bought), because it is reported (said to - told) in the past. So why cannot we do that in all other circumstances? In this example, we start with present perfect continuous (I have been noticing) and we shift to past (found out) and finish with present perfect (have done). My question here is - Can we mix tenses like this? If so.. why we are not doing it (mixing the tenses) in the reported speech? I also know that in the relative clause, subordinate clause and the dependent clause, the tenses can be changed. And I also know that some of the adverbial sentences can have a mix of tenses. So please explain to me in this example (I have been noticing you ..........) how we can mix the tenses? Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 13/09/2020 - 14:00

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Your sentence 'I have been noticing your progress and found out that you have done well' still sounds a little strange to me because it's not clear to me what you mean. For example, 'have been noticing' implies you started this noticing in the past and are still doing it now, but then 'found out' implies you only discovered progress in the past, yet then the sentence goes on to a present perfect reference, which implies they did well recently -- but is it after the time you stopped finding out? I was imagining a teacher praising their students for their continual progress and so the past simple threw me off. But maybe I've misunderstood?

Without knowing the situation you are describing and what exactly you want to say, it's really difficult to give feedback about verb tenses, since there's quite a range of possible uses and meanings for each. We'll still do our best to help as we have time to do so here, but if you are able to get help from a teacher you can speak with, I think you'd find it much easier.

I hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Kirk for your concerning answer. Yes, I cannot explain the whole situation, because it will take much time for you to read it. So as you said it will be good idea to consult with a teacher. I have lot of similar doubts to ask. So please let me know, if you have a program that I can engage with, so that I can talk/chat to a teacher. I have already noticed that there is a course for 5.99 pounds per month in your company. Will that be a useful course for me? please guide me in this line. Thank you, Regards, kingson

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,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

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

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

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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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,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

In reply to by Reemtb

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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.

 

Peter

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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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,

Kirk

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,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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,

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
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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