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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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 25/08/2016 - 07:02

In reply to by learning_always

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Hi learning_always,

Explanation (b) is correct. Getting the letter is the main past time event; the other two actions are past perfect because they happened before this past time and a relevant to it.

The sentence with a present perfect form does not feel right because 'we have lost touch' suggests that it is still true (unfinished past), whereas 'I got a letter' tells us that the speaker is back in touch with Jim again. The issue is not so much grammatical but contextual - there is a conceptual clash here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fyooz on Sun, 14/08/2016 - 16:07

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I had commented before!!

Submitted by fyooz on Sun, 14/08/2016 - 10:06

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Hi ser , Can you help me , I am reading a english book for learning , it name Our Universe by Roy A Galant ,and I found he used the Past Perfect an perfect countuins in this sentence : "By 46 B.C., the calender had fallen hopeleesly out of pace with the seasons ,and Julius Caesar decreed that the lenght of the year should be 365 days plus one extra day every four years. But, by the 1500's ,people realized that the Julian calender had been falling behind the seasons at the rate of one day every 125 years." Why he used them ? , and what the meaning of 1500's ? My Regards

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 15/08/2016 - 07:19

In reply to by fyooz

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Hi fyooz,

I'm afraid we can't explain the uses of given forms by authors from elsewhere, particularly when the passage quoted is part of a much larger context and, in any case, has multiple errors in it.

The phrase 1500s refers to the period of time from 1500 to 1599. It is often used to talk about decades: the sixties (the 60s/he 1960s) etc.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fyooz on Tue, 16/08/2016 - 21:45

In reply to by Peter M.

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Thanks very much for your replys .. If in any case the books have an error so I need to read a book that care with grammer for learning ?

Submitted by fyooz on Tue, 16/08/2016 - 21:59

In reply to by Peter M.

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And another question, sorry ! Do (by the time) or (by 1789) has a relation with past perfect ? And what the meaning of "as well as" ? And dose this book can help me to support my grammer and vocabiolry or there is a book can help me more ? I'm sorry for a big number of qusetion

Submitted by clp920 on Wed, 20/07/2016 - 13:18

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I have deja vu, or first two examples I have just seen on bbc learningenglish. So I have idea how to practise past perfect tense: The BBC had published two sentences about Mary and John before LearnEnglish British Council pasted this examples on its site.

Hello clp920,

That doesn't surprise me – 'Mary' and 'John' are extremely common names and are probably used in many, many example sentences. Anyway, we're glad you've joined us.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by maynaing on Thu, 14/07/2016 - 10:52

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Please make me confirm between Present perfect vs Past perfect. Present perfect must rely on present time and past perfect must rely on past time, is it correct?

Hello maynaing,

I'm afraid this is much too complex a question to answer in such a short comment! The present perfect related the past to the present in a number of ways, which you can see on our page on the present perfect. The past perfect is similar, but relates an earlier past to a later past, as you can see on our page on the past perfect. You might also find this page on the perfective aspect in general useful.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aisha_aamir on Thu, 09/06/2016 - 15:12

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Why is it that the instructions say "DO NOT USE CONTINUOUS TENSES. And yet after my quiz, I had mistakes so i clicked on the "Show Answers" and some answers were "had been burgled"... etc,... ? -- #confused

Hello aisha_aamir,

Continuous tenses are those which use 'be + verb-ing', such as 'I am going' or 'He will be sleeping'. The example you give ('had been burgled') is a past perfect passive form, not a continuous form.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ajaz ajju on Fri, 20/05/2016 - 04:55

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Hello sir Can we use past perfect for single sentence? Eg : I had watched the movie

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 20/05/2016 - 06:28

In reply to by Ajaz ajju

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Hello Ajaz ajju,

The past perfect needs a past time context - it must refer to a past time, showing an action or state which is before that past time. However, that context does not need to be in the same sentence. It could be in another sentence, or it could be implied by the topic of discussion.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nasder on Wed, 06/04/2016 - 19:14

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Hello, i have a question in mind . can we use the past perfect with the present ? because i came across these sentence: 1. we had studied six new tenses so far and we are going to learn more this semester. 2.Bob wants to buy a new car. He had owned this one for ten years. 3. linda is still sick. She had had a bad cold for over a week. is this perhaps aa exception for " historic present" ?!!

Hello nasder,

Perfect forms are dependent on time-relations, and so the context is important, and it is hard to be completely sure when looking at sentences in isolation.

We use the past perfect for actions or events which had an effect in the past. Your first sentence describes an activity which has an effect in the present and so the present perfect would seem to be appropriate:

We have studied six new tenses so far and we are going to learn more this semester.

The same is true for the other two sentences. Where an action or state is still true at the time of speaking, or where it has a result at the time of speaking, we use the present perfect rather than the past perfect. To use the past perfect there needs to be another past time reference.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

 

Submitted by K_H on Sun, 13/12/2015 - 10:08

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Hi, I've learned that the present perfect cannot be used with when-question. How about the past perfect? Is it possible to use it in when-questions? If possible, what kind of context allows it to occur? Regards, K_H

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 13/12/2015 - 13:39

In reply to by K_H

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Hello K_H,

Most of the time, that's probably true, but I'm not sure I'd say that it's true that the present perfect is never used with 'when'. For example, 'When have I ever lied to you?' is correct. I can't think of a 'when' question that uses the past perfect off the top of my head, but I expect there may be some situations when it would be appropriate.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by David Chan on Mon, 02/11/2015 - 04:05

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Hi teachers, "Product development of the watch had begun in March 2014 and the team launched a marketing campaign to sell it on 13 June 2015." The sentence above uses past perfect to tell us that product development comes before its launch. My question: Is that necessary to use past perfect here? (1) It is not important to tell the sequence of the two actions (product development and launching) in the sentence. Of course a product needs to be developed before launching. (2) Specific time is given for the two actions (March 2014 and 13 June 2015). No ambiquity is there at all. (3) Using simple past tense for both actions can do the job. Please kindly advise. Thank you.

Hello David,

You are right – it is not necessary to use the past perfect here and the past simple would work just as well for the reasons you describe.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ronaz2015 on Wed, 22/07/2015 - 00:33

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Hello teacher, sorry for asking a lot of questions,, could you please look at this: IF am a chef and i go to interview with a new restaurant: he asked me about my previous jobs so any of these sentences are better and which one is completely wring,thank you in advance - I worked as a pizza chef at PIzza Hot for 2 years. -I had worked as a pizza chef at Pizza Hot for 2 years. -I had been working as a pizza chef at Pizza Hot for 2 years.

Hello ronaz2015,

The first sentence is the best choice. The other two sentences would only be used if you were also referring to another past time and to changes. For example:

I had worked as a pizza chef at Pizza Hot for 2 years before I got promoted to Head Chef.

I had been working as a pizza chef at Pizza Hot for 2 years by that time.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ronaz2015 on Fri, 03/07/2015 - 11:49

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Hello.first thank you for answering our questions. I have an question here about using simple past for period of time in the past and as i know we use present perfect for this so i am confused. So what the difference in meaning bettwen these two sentences : I lived in Kurdistan for two years. I have lived in Kurdistan for two years.

Hello ronaz2015,

In the first sentence 'lived' the speaker no longer lives in Kurdistan. In the second sentence the speaker still lives there.

The past simple describes finished actions or states in the past. The present perfect links a past action or state to the present.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Linda Vejlupkova on Tue, 30/06/2015 - 06:02

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I don't know exactly which came first, British Council's version of Past Perfect (maybe 1 June 2015) or BBC 6 Minute Grammar (16 June 2015), but their examples used are very similar. BBC's 1st example was "Mary rang John's doorbell at 8:15 yesterday, but John had gone to work." Others were "I was pleased when I got a text from Jim, because I'd lost his number" and "When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine she realised she'd washed her phone." It really doesn't matter as both British Council and BBC are both excellent resources, but I'm curious as to whether there is a link between them. Just wondering . . .

Hello Linda,

Although we do collaborate with the BBC from time to time on specific projects (e.g. Word on the Street), as far as I know, there is no link between the writing of this page and the BBC. This page on LearnEnglish was created in 2008, but it's likely been updated since then – although we could probably figure out exactly when it was written, I'm afraid we just don't have the time to devote to that. In any case, as you point out, both pages are useful resources.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by tssang on Tue, 23/06/2015 - 00:03

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Hello, I read my little cousin's homework yesterday and I saw a demonstrative paragraph in it and I just copied the paragraph below: "Last summer, I had an awful experience. I woke up early one morning and I saw a stranger from the balcony. I tried to call my dad but he has not returned my call yet. I was so scared. Then I called 999. Luckily, the police came after a few minutes." I am a bit confused about the sentence "I tried to call my dad but he has not returned my call yet. " Should present perfect tense really be used rather than past perfect tense in the sentence? Is this sentence perfectly written in the paragraph? Thank you for answering my question~~

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 23/06/2015 - 06:11

In reply to by tssang

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Hello tssang,

The mixing of tenses here does not seem correct to me. I would say that the tenses in the narrative should be consistent and so past perfect would be correct, as you say.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Peter or other kind helper, If you think "the mixing of tenses here does not seem correct to me", would you please rewrite the paragraph ? I know it takes your valuable time but I really wonder how it should be fixed... Thank you very much

Hello tssang,

The only correction needed is in the sentence which you highlighted. This should read:

...but he did not return my call.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Peter or other kind helped, I guess the writer put perfect tense ( HAS not returned my call yet ) in that sentence because the writer wanted to show that the father did return call, but he was late as the child couldn't wait and called the police. He might have called back right after the police caught the stranger .If so, will it seem right to you for saying "I tried to call my dad but he HAD not returned my call yet." ? Or still "did not return my call " is better ? Thank you !

Hello tssang,

'Has' here would imply the the speaker is still waiting for the return call now, which is rather unlikely as the situation has resolved itself. Therefore 'had' would be the correct form.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mexbm on Fri, 19/06/2015 - 17:18

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Hello. I'm confused can we use an other sentence in past besides past simple? Or simple past passive voice? Like for example: Joes had had his new car for 3 days when it was stolen 2. Don was feeling tired because she hadn't slept well the night before.

Hello mexbm,

Yes, those sentences are fine. All past forms have in common a past time reference, but past perfect forms are used when there are two time references. For example, in your sentences the time references are:

having the car and the car being stolen

feeling tired and not sleeping well

If we have only one time reference then we use the past simple.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ayub ali khan on Sat, 30/05/2015 - 11:35

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plz tell me can we use both and what is difference in meaning of these two sentences 1 SSC had conducted exam 2 SSC conducted exam i know that first sentence in past perfect and second in simple past but sometime i confuse what to use thnxx

Hello Ayub ali khan,

The uses of the two forms are described on the page above. Both refer to past events, but the past perfect needs another event or time reference as it must be before another event; we do not use the past perfect on its own, but rather to show that one event was before another, and had some kind of influence on it.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ayub ali khan on Thu, 28/05/2015 - 10:27

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hello sir when we use continue double had in a sentence pls explain

Hello Ayub ali khan,

We make the past perfect with [had + past participle]. For example:

I had looked

She had gone

We had seen

'Had' can also be the past participle of 'have', so if we make a sentence with 'have' and we want to put it into the past perfect then the result is:

I had had

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thnx plz solve one more problem i am confused about when to use 'be' in sentence i only know that 'be' uses in passive Voice i want to any other use of 'be'

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 30/05/2015 - 11:00

In reply to by Ayub ali khan

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Hello Ayub ali khan,

I'm afraid this is too general a question for us to answer here. 'Be' has many roles in English and to list and explain them all would require a very long explanation, which is not the purpose of these comments sections. If you have a particular example then we'll be happy to try to explain it, but please remember that our role here is to maintain the site; answering questions is something we can do only when time allows.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by omprakash jadhav on Sun, 24/05/2015 - 17:54

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Hi there I wanted to ask a question about vocabulary how to improve it, and i have Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis can i use this book for vocabulary particularly for IELTS. For me its taking too long 3 to 4hrs per day learn new words.

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 25/05/2015 - 08:08

In reply to by omprakash jadhav

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Hello omprakash,

I'd recommend you read our advice on learning vocabulary on our Help page. Our MyWordBook 2 and IELTS Word Power apps are designed to help with vocabulary acquisition and TakeIELTS has an app called 1001 ways that might also be of interest to you.

By the way, please try to post your comments on a relevant page. For example, this comment would make much more sense on our IELTS or Vocabulary Games pages.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by moonshadow1008 on Thu, 14/05/2015 - 14:27

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Hi there! Is it possible to combine past perfect and past continuous in one sentence? Ex. I had slept when someone was turning on and off the lights. Thank you in advance.

Hello moonshadow1008,

It is possible, but not in this way. The past perfect shows an action at a time before another action in the past which is in some way related to it. The second action needs to be on ongoing activity for the continuous to be appropriate, which means it need a quite particular context. For example:

I had forgotten that she was walking home.

I had already finished the exam but she was still writing it.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter. Thank you for your response. I am a little confuse though. In what particular context can we use past continuous with past perfect? Could you explain further? Is there a certain name for that context? Thank you.

Hi moodshadow1008,

I'm not sure what else I can say - the answer I gave gives as clear a definition as I can:

The past perfect shows an action at a time before another action in the past; the second action needs to be on ongoing activity for the continuous to be appropriate.

It also provides two examples. There is no name for the context - it is just a logical context for the meanings of the tenses.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamginalynlopez on Thu, 14/05/2015 - 05:35

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..hi can someone clear my mind about when do we use to/for?? please send me more examples.thanks

Hi iamginalynlopez,

These words are used in a great variety of ways, far too many for me to list here! You can see definitions and examples in our Cambridge Dictionaries Online (just type the word into the search window and click 'Look it up!'). If you have any particular examples you'd like to ask about then we'll be happy to try to explain them for you.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team