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)
Hi Kirk I’m really sorry for showing my email address I didn’t know it was prohibited my apologies but I showed it as I was looking forward to your response and I didn’t want to miss it. As for the correct answers I think 1. Had always thought. Is correct because if we use simple past it means that they think their daughter was smart only at the moment of speaking while with past perfect they thought this during all the years 2.had learnt is correct because it refers to action before another past action and it focuses on the result and not on the action like had been learning 3.tried is correct I think because it comes immediately after another past action like it says in the context after she was born Best wishes Andi
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Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 26/03/2021 - 10:04

In reply to by Tony1980

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Hello Andi,

Don't worry about including your email address! I just wanted to explain why we deleted it. Thanks also for explaining what you think the answers are. This helps us understand what our users are thinking and give more specific answers.

In this case, there's actually more than one answer for some of the gaps; which one is correct depends on the context and on how old the little girl is now. If, for example, this little girl is now 12 and her parents were thinking these things when she was 2, then the past simple or past perfect forms would be correct -- more specifically, for 1, 'always thought' or 'had always thought'; for 2, 'learnt' or 'had learnt'; and for 3 'tried' or 'had tried'.

There is very little difference between the past simple and past perfect forms if this is the situation, but the past perfect would suggest some other point of time in the past (not mentioned in this sentence, but understood from another sentence or the general context) that these events occurred before.

I hope this helps you make sense of it. Please let us know if you have any follow-up questions.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk Your response was very helpful indeed I really appreciate it. However to be fully clear I need to go step by step over it again if that doesn’t bother you . Now if we see the first part of the sentence “her parents always thought “ is cause/effect related to the next part “ because she had learnt to read early” In the second part of the sentence we have “ had learnt” which is past perfect and meaning that this action happened first . So first she learnt to read then her parents realized and thought that she was smart. So if the cause/effect relation between these two parts of the sentence imposes us a past perfect tense in the second part “ had learnt to read early” why did you say in your response that it can be either “learnt to read “ and “ had learnt to read”. I’m a bit confused. Sorry for being so long. All the best Andi
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 29/03/2021 - 16:39

In reply to by Tony1980

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Hello Andi,

Most of the time, using the past perfect is a choice, not a requirement. The 'cause/effect relation' that you describe doesn't impose the use of the past perfect in this case, either -- it's a decision the writer could make to use it. In a sentence like this, the past perfect can be used to clarify the order of the events, but it is not necessary to do this.

The sentence you ask about is a good example of this. If the writer or speaker wanted to make it very clear that their daughter learned to read early and that this is what made their parents think she was clever, then 'had learned to read early' would be a good choice. But it could be that this is not a particularly important point, or the writer might think that it's obvious that first the girl did something extraordinary and after that her parents noticed it, and so could use the past simple form. In this case, the reader would likely still suppose that the reading came first, though it would be less clearly indicated.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk Thanks a lot for the elaborated response I really appreciate it. My next question would be what about the progressive tenses in this paragraph 1. Were always thinking 2. Had always been thinking and so on. Why they are not possible here . All the best Andi
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Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 07:03

In reply to by Tony1980

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Hi Andi,

I don't think I said that those forms were not possible, but rather that other forms were more common. In fact, these forms are possible here in a context where we wanted to emphasise that, for example, they had these thoughts again and again over a period of time. If you follow the link, you'll see a detailed explanation of the past continuous form, and also links to explanations of other verb forms. If you have a close look at them, I think this will help you understand the different possibilities here.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by vanshh03 on Tue, 09/03/2021 - 07:02

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I have a major doubt in past perfect and past simple. When we say a sentence which has no time period mentioned like 1) I have done my work. 2) I did my work. Which one of these is correct? In my opinion both of them should be correct.(If not please correct me) I know that if we mention a time period then it cause a difference between past simple and past perfect. For past simple- a definite point in past For past perfect- time till now(unfinished time)

Hello vanshh03,

The past simple requires a definite past time, but this can be implicit in the context and not explicitly stated in the sentence. Both sentences are grammatically correct in terms of how they are formed, but we can't say more without know the context in which they are used.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Safan on Thu, 25/02/2021 - 12:54

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Thank you so much for clarifying that the past perfect is reserved for specific conditions. It is painful to read (as I recently did in a new novel) sentences such as, "She had been born in 1960, in a house that had been too small." Memoirs are the worst for this! One grammar teacher told me that the past perfect is used for clarity, to describe an "interrupted condition" (as explained above), or in "if-then" constructions followed by the past conditional (If I had gone....then I would have..."). In other Latin-derived languages, there is a simple past to describe completed actions, and an imperfect tense to describe background actions. Since we don't have an imperfect tense in English, we can use the simple past, past progressive, or "used to" as the context requires. No need for overuse of the past perfect.

Submitted by sisi on Fri, 19/02/2021 - 11:25

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Hello, please can you explain me why in the sentence number 3 the correct answer is 3. First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread. made? Because according with the explanation you have to use past simple as a second act and past participle as a first act. In the sentence make the salad occurred first.

Hello sisi,

When we talk about a series of consecutive actions in the past, we usually use the past simple for each of the actions. That is why 'made' is the correct answer here.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 08:58

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Dear Team, There is a meeting tomorrow and I am going to explain to my friend about the meeting, day after tomorrow, in relation to how the meeting went. So can I say the following? I will let you (my friend) know (day after tomorrow) how the meeting (meeting has not even started but going to happen tomorrow) went (can we use past tense (went) here? while the meeting has not even started). Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 16:07

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Yes, the sentence 'I'll let you know how the meeting went' communicates the idea that you explain. The context makes the time period that 'went' refers to clear.

Good job!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, Could you please further explain what do you try to say by saying "The context makes the time period that 'went' refers to clear." I could not understand the real meaning of this sentence. Please explain. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 26/01/2021 - 15:21

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

Sorry if that was confusing. What I meant was that the context makes the time period clear. In other words, the time period that the verb 'went' refers to is clear in the context of the sentence.

Hope that helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Kirk. Now it is clear to me. Regards, kingson

Submitted by Maria Don Chandy on Fri, 22/01/2021 - 17:35

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b. We are taught honesty. (past perfect) could you help me with this with explanation

Hello Maria Don Chandy,

I'm afraid I don't understand the instructions for this. If you are supposed to change the verb to a past perfect form, then you change the verb 'are' into the past perfect ('had been'): 'We had been taught honesty'.

By the way, the verbs 'are taught' and 'had been taught' are passive forms.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Loc Duc on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 10:11

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the second rule to use the past perfect is to show the order of 2 past events, the past perfect shows the earlier actions, and the past simple shows the later actions. and why we can't apply this rule to this sentence? First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread. Answer: made why not 'd made

Hello Loc Duc,

It's true that the past perfect shows one event was earlier in the past than another, but there also needs to be a connection between the two events. For example:

I got up, had a shower and made a cup of coffee.

Here, the past simple is used for each action as there is no connection between the events. They form a sequence but they do not affect or cause one another.

 

The thief had escaped when the police arrived.

This example is different. The thief escaping is clearly related to the police's arrival, as they were hoping to catch the thief. In other words, the escape changed the situation for the police in a key way. Thus, the past perfect is used.

 

 I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much Peter, Every time I see you answers, a new avenue opens up for my better understanding in English. Keep it up. "John told me that Tim had finished his work." In the above reported sentence (Direct speech form for the above sentence- John said to me "Tim finished his work") - can we consider that Tim's finishing of work has influenced John's statement? Are they (john tole me & Tim had finished ) related to each other? Are they connected? If so, how? and in what way? Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Submitted by Zuzanna on Mon, 04/01/2021 - 20:25

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Hello, Could you tell me why in the sentence "My grandma died before I was born." the author did not use Past Perfect to say ''My grandma had died...."?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 08:41

In reply to by Zuzanna

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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?

Jonathan

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,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

In reply to by freudian99

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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,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

In reply to by Yigido

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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?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

In reply to by Jonathan R

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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'.

Hi Yigido,

Yes, we do use the present simple after when. But it's not the only option. We can use other tenses too, depending on the timeframe of the actions in the sentence. Here, the action (our guests had all left) must have happened before the other past action (We had a good rest), so that's why the past perfect is used here.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Amit01 on Sat, 19/12/2020 - 05:02

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The United States has always grabbed global attention for just being what is it—the United States. Is this sentence correct any way ?

Hello Amit01,

It is grammatically correct except for one small thing: instead of 'what is it', the correct form is 'what it is'.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Amit01 on Fri, 18/12/2020 - 20:57

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It is a key opportunity for India, which had played a major role in Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971, to revive the bonhomie. - in this sentence why we should use past perfect tense other than only past tense? What is the difference? Please explain.

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?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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.

 

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