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 (123 votes)

Hi Amit01,

We use the past perfect when there two past actions, and we want to show which one happened first (i.e. earlier). In this sentence, had played a major role happened before liberation in 1971, so that's why it's in the past perfect.

But, we often simplify it and use the past simple instead of the past perfect. We do that if the sentence clearly shows which action happened first. Here, it's quite clear that played a major role happened before liberation - because that makes sense logically as a cause and effect, and also played a major role is mentioned first in the sentence (i.e. the actions are in the same order in the sentence as the order that they happened). So, the past simple would be fine here too!

Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Arcasso on Tue, 08/12/2020 - 11:21

Hello Sir. I have a question. What is the difference in meaning in these sentences: 1) The waiter took my plate away before I had finished eating. 2) The waiter took my plate away before I finished eating. I know that both versions are correct, but I can't understand meaning of example number 2. Thank you very much for your answer.

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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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

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


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.



The LearnEnglish Team