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 (126 votes)
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.

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

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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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

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
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 16:07

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


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,


The LearnEnglish Team