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 (127 votes)
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 08:41

In reply to by Zuzanna


Hello Zuzanna,

It's a question of preference, I think. Both forms are grammatically possible.

The past perfect emphasises a connection between the two events and would probably be used if the writer wanted to talk about how not having their grandma had changed their life, for example.

The past simple describes two events in the past, but does not necessarily mean that they are connected or influence one another.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hatchaitchi88 on Sun, 03/01/2021 - 21:57

Hi! I saw recently example in English Grammar in Use. " The ship sank because the engineer didn't call for help until it was too late". I think, "...because the engineer hadn't called until it was too late;" or why there must be didn't? I don't know, really. past perfect because thing (or action) hadn't done until moment. What would you say?

Hi Hatchaitchi88,

It's a good question :) Both the past perfect (hadn't called) and the past simple (didn't call) are correct here.

The action of calling for help happened before the ship sinking, so the past perfect makes sense.

But, speakers often simplify by using the past simple instead of the past perfect, if the order of the events is clear in the rest of the sentence. In this situation, it's logical that not calling for help would happen before the ship sinking. It says because the engineer didn't call for help ... . 'Because' shows what caused something, and a cause must logically come before the effect. So, that's why the past perfect can be simplified to the past simple here.

Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

Oh, now I understand, thank you. There is one more question. In grammar test 2 on this page, question 6: "We had the French exam this morning. It wasn't as hard as I'd expected, though." I'd expected = "I had expected", right? First I thought that there would have been Past Perf. Contin., but then I thought, maybe there is Past Perfect, because "except" is non continuous verb; So, what is true? Is my quess right?

Hi Hatchaitchi88,

Yes, it means I had expected here. Actually, expect is used in both simple and continuous tenses, and both make sense in this sentence.

  • It wasn't as hard as I'd expected.
  • It wasn't as hard as I'd been expecting.

The continuous form emphasises that 'expecting' had some duration (i.e. it went on for some time).

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by freudian99 on Wed, 30/12/2020 - 12:10

Hello. I am supposed to do a test on Past Perfect Simple and Past Simple. Is this correct? The two men needed to get back to their camp quickly because they HAD ALREADY USED all their gas to make water from snow. Also, they DIDN'T BRING any extra food with them on this trip. Yates HAD TRIED to lower Simpson down the mountain on a rope, but Yates couldn't hold him so he HAD TO cut the rope. After trying to call him for several hours Yates was sure that Simpson HAD DIED so he walked down the mountain alone. However, Simpson HADN'T BEEN dead. He somehow managed to get out of the hole and get back to camp. Yates HAD ALREADY BURNED Simpson's clothes and was preparing to leave. He WAS very happy to see him because he HAD LOST all hope to see him alive.
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Fri, 01/01/2021 - 10:27

In reply to by freudian99


Hello freudian99,

That's mostly correct. I'd recommend 'hadn't brought' for the third gap, 'tried' for the fourth, and 'wasn't' for the sixth.

Good luck on your test!

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yigido on Tue, 29/12/2020 - 15:50

Hi Team Teacher,I have 2 questions 1) I sometimes see just one event like:"We had already seen the film." Why we don't say"We have already seen the film"? What's the difference? 2)We use past perfect to identify which happened first and we have 2 events, but Why we use past perfect with 1 event? We don't need to identify this event?
Profile picture for user Jonathan R

Submitted by Jonathan R on Wed, 30/12/2020 - 06:59

In reply to by Yigido


Hi Yigido,

These are good questions :) Yes, if the past perfect is used, there must be a second past action or time. But, it could be somewhere else in the conversation, i.e. a previous or later sentence. It doesn't need to be in the same sentence. For example:

  • We switched on the TV, and Star Wars was on Channel 1. But we had already seen the film. So, we changed the channel.

In this example, the past perfect (we had already seen the film) shows that that action happened some time before the other past actions.


If the narrative is in the present, then we use the present perfect.

  • We have already seen this film. Let's change the channel. (i.e. change the channel now)

Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yigido on Sun, 03/01/2021 - 16:20

In reply to by Jonathan R

Teacher I have one more question. "We had a good rest when our gests had all left." Why we use -Past perfect-after 'when' conjunction? We usually use -Present simple- after 'when'.