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 (123 votes)
Do you need to improve your English grammar?
Join thousands of learners from around the world who are improving their English grammar with our online courses.

Hi Jonathan
Thanks again for your response

Heidi Hankins aged four sat an iq test after staff at her nursery 1)said / were saying / had said / had been saying she was so intelligent they 2)struggled / were struggling / had struggled / had been struggling to find activities to challenge her.
All answers are correct apart from were saying in 1).
My question is why “ were saying “ is not correct in 1). Isn’t it the same as “ were struggling “ in 2) which is correct.
I mean what is another way of emphasising that the staff was constantly saying and repeating that she was intelligent.
Best regards

Hi Andi,

It's because this action (saying she was so intelligent) occurred BEFORE the previously mentioned event (Heidi sat an IQ test) and directly caused it. You can use 'had been saying' to emphasise its duration, but not 'were saying' because the past continuous normally shows an action taking place at the SAME TIME as something else. So, in this example, the past continuous conflicts with the meaning of 'after' ('after staff at her nursery ....').

I hope that helps. If you have more questions, please start a new comment, as this thread is becoming narrow!

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 22/10/2021 - 01:58

In reply to by Peter M.


Dear Peter,

I have a question here, because previously one of your team's responses to me was - "present perfect contonuous" can connote a temporary condition. You also affirm that (temporary condition of continuous form) by your answer here. So my understanding is all the continuous forms (present, past, future, present perfect and past perfect continuous) can also have a temporary form of action. Please let me know, whether I am correct in my understanding or not.
Thank you,

Hello kingson,

That's correct. One common use of all continuous forms is to show that an action or state is temporary - or perceived as temporary - rather than permanent.

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Mon, 30/08/2021 - 01:41

Dear Team, I have got two sets of questions. 1. "It was thought to have been serious." What does this above sentence really mean? "Thought" is a past tense and have been is a "present perfect." How this mingles like this and what does this really mean? (gramatically which tense this sentence has?) and can we make a sentence like this (past tense and present tense mix)? Could you please help me in this regard. 2. "The love of God that has been showed (or) showed to human since beginning." Which one to use ? - "has been showed" or just "showed." I think, "has been showed" would be more appropriate because there is a "since" in it. Am I correct in my thinking? Thank you, Regards, kingson
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 09:32

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello kingson,

1. There a a number of phrases similar to this which we use to introduce opinions, beliefs, claims and so on:

It was thought to...

It was claimed to...

It was believed to...

The construction is a passive form and you can change the tense:

It is thought to...

It has been thought to...

These phrases are followed by an infinitive form. This could be the bare infinitive for a present meaning:

He was thought to be a member of the Mafia.

Or you can use a perfect infinitive:

He was thought to have been a member of the Mafia for most of his life.

Other forms of the infinitive are also possible: passive infinitives, continuous finitives etc. The form used will depend on the context. 


2. Yes, I think has been is more appropriate here as it describes an unfinished past time.



The LearnEnglish Team


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
Profile picture for user Peter M.

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