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)
Dear Peter, You have made me to do a research in the world of "infinitives." They are very useful in learning English vocabulary. Thank you very much for that. I still have a question for you. "I want to play" In this above sentence how can we differentiate between the "normal verb" and the infinitive? Is "want" a normal verb? "to play" an infinitive? Could you please enlighten me in this regard. My next question is... Can we consider all the present perfect as the unfinished tense in the past time? Thank you very much for your patience for answering my questions. Regards, kingson
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 01/09/2021 - 08:52

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello again kingson,

In your sentence 'want' is a normal and regular verb which is followed by an infinitive:

I want to play.

[want + to verb]

Some verbs, such as want, are followed by infinitives. Others are followed by gerunds. It's very useful to learn verb patterns such as this. You can read about different verb patterns in the relevant section of our grammmar reference:

You'll see links to specific pages at the bottom of the page.


Perfect describes an aspect rather than a tense. Perfect forms are retrospective, meaning that they look back from one time to another: seeing the past from the perspective of the present, for example, or seeing the past from the perspective of a later past.


The present perfect describes actions and events which exist in an unfinished past time frame as we see them. This last phrase is important: it's how we see the actions and events that is key. The action may be complete, but we see it as unfinished because its results or effects are still relevant. For example:

I went to Spain in 2005.

This is a past event, complete and finished.

I've been to Spain.

This is present in the sense that I'm telling you that I have knowledge or experience in my head now which is in some way relevant: I can give you advice, perhaps, or maybe I'm telling you that I'd prefer to go to another country as I've already been to Spain. The context will make clear why the knowledge is relevant; the present perfect simply tells us that it exists.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 08/07/2021 - 09:33

Dear Team, "In today's News paper, it was said that the market rate (for the houses) seems to go up." In this sentence it started with a past tense ( in was said) but the further information in this sentence is in present tense (seems to go up). Can we formulate a sentence like this? I need a clarification here - "it was said" - is a past reference so the following sentence should also be in past tence (seemed to go). Please enlighten me in this regard. "I did not know you worked here." In this above sentence the person (you) actually is currently working there. But due to past reference (I did not know) we need to use the past tense (you worked here). If we use this past tense (you worked here) does not indicate that the person does work there now. So please explain to me how I can understand the English grammar here. Thank you so much for all your answers to my questions so far. Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 09/07/2021 - 07:01

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello kingson,

We don't comment on examples from sources we don't know as we have no way of knowing if the source is reliable in terms of language. However, I can comment on the general rule here and say that it is perfectly possible to use a present form after a past reporting verb if the present verb describes something which is still true or has a general time reference.

For example, this sentence is correct:

It was said that male drivers are worse than female drivers.

The words were said in the past (thus 'was said') but the comment itself is not time specific, so a present form is fine.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, The general rule in English grammar is the past reference (was said) should have the past tense comment. So how can we distinguish the comments that are time specific and the comments that are not time specific? So that sounds to me that sometimes the grammar rules (as I mentioned above) can be changed with such things (comments that are not time specific) in English. Is that right? Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 12/07/2021 - 06:58

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello kingsonselvaraj,

There is no fixed rule like that. The verb form in reported or indirect speech does not always change. For example:

Direct speech: It will rain tomorrow.

Reported speech 1: She said it would rain tomorrow

Reported speech 2: She said it will rain tomorrow

Both forms are correct here. The second version makes it clear that tomorrow has not yet come; the first form could be used before tomorrow or after it.


In the example you gave, the form 'was said' has a past time reference: the comment was made in the past. However, the rest of the sentence does not necessarily have to contain a tense shift. It depends on the context and the speaker.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Wed, 30/06/2021 - 11:07

Dear Team, Is this right? I have seen him when he visited our church. Here I am trying to make a statement which reflects the present perfected truth (have seen) with a past reference (he visited). But "when" denotes the past. So please let me know whether I can form a sentence like this (as above). Thank you, Regards, kingson
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 01/07/2021 - 07:06

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello kingonselvaraj,

As you say, 'when' with the past simple ('visited') denotes a finished past time, so the sentence is not coherent and is not correct.


You could use the past simple (I saw him...) or change the second half (I've seen him in our church / visiting our church)



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sun, 13/06/2021 - 09:12

Dear Team, They were killed and burried. They were confused and asked questions. The first senrence is a passive voice but has not had a "were" before burried. So we assume the "were" before confused can also be there before burried. In the second sentence is also a passive voice, but the axillury verb "were" applicable only to the verb "confused", and not for "asked". Can we make sentences like this? Please help me in this regard. Thank you, kingson
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sun, 13/06/2021 - 13:51

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello kingson,

We call the omission of words 'ellipsis'. This can be done in many different ways and in general the best guiding principle is that we should avoid confusion. Usually the context will our meaning clear, but of course confusion can arise.

Your analysis of the first sentence makes sense to me. The auxiliary 'were' is understood to apply to both past participles.

In the second sentence, 'confused' is more likely to be an adjective than the past participle of a passive verb, but you're right in noticing that the second verb is understood to be active. In part this is because 'were' is understood to be a link verb, but also it would make the most sense in most contexts.

Note that there is nothing in the grammar of the second sentence that indicates what the sentence means. My interpretation above is just that -- that is, it is just an interpretation. In fact, it could be that 'were confused' is a passive verb, which would make it likely that 'asked' is actually an abbreviate form of 'were asked'. I chose the interpretation I explained above because, as a native speaker, I've seen or heard similar constructions in lots of different instances and know that my interpretation is more likely.

Part of what students of languages need to do is be exposed to large amounts of the language in question so that they can develop similar experience.

I hope this helps you make sense of this issue.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team