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 (122 votes)

Hello Tony1980,

As a teacher, I want to ask you what you think the answers are and why. If you try to work out the correct verb forms, you will learn a lot more and then we are happy to help you with the ones you find confusing.

I'm afraid we don't email our users responses to their comments, and our House rules prohibit you from sharing such personal information in your comments, which is why your email address has been deleted.

Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Fri, 26/03/2021 - 10:04

In reply to by Tony1980


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,


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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 29/03/2021 - 16:39

In reply to by Tony1980


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,


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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 07:03

In reply to by Tony1980


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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

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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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

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.