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)
Hi Peter M. Thanks for the your elaborated response it was really helpful I came across this sentence: I was teaching Spanish while I was living in Mexico. What’s the difference if we say: 1)I taught Spanish while I lived in Mexico. 2)I taught Spanish while I was living in Mexico. 3)I was teaching Spanish while I lived in Mexico. Sorry if Im being too demanding. Best regards Andi

Hi Andi,

Generally, the continuous form in this kind of context suggests that something is seen as temporary while the simple suggest permanence. However, beyond that I wouldn't comment on the particular examples you provide. The reason is that the choice is dependent on the detailed context and the speaker's perspective. In other words, we would simply be speculating about how the speaker sees the situation and the discussion would devolve into a whole series of maybes: Perhaps he thinks... perhaps he is... and so on.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Sun, 19/09/2021 - 12:14

In reply to by Peter M.

Hi Peter M. Thanks again for your response Oh no! I ___ my wallet in the restaurant. I’m struggling between simple past and present perfect. I Think the right answer would be “ have left “ since present perfect indicates the wallet is still in the restaurant. If we used simple past then the sentence would be : I left my wallet in the restaurant this morning. But then went to the restaurant and took it and now I have it with me. Is this reasoning correct or I’m wrong? Best wishes Andi

Hi Andi,

You could use either the present perfect or past simple here. Both make sense.

  • The present perfect implies a present connection (i.e., the wallet is still in the restaurant now and I need to go back and get it, as you said).
  • The past simple means this event ('I left my wallet') happened in the past. It could have been some time ago (e.g., hours ago) or recently (e.g., one minute ago). Adding a time phrase (e.g., 'this morning') is optional. Your example sentence is correct, but we can also use the past simple if you haven't collected the wallet yet. Whether you have collected the wallet yet or not doesn't change the fact that you left it in the restaurant.

I hope that makes sense :)

If you have more present perfect questions, it would be great if you could post them on our present perfect page.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Mon, 20/09/2021 - 15:49

In reply to by Jonathan R

Hi Jonathan R It makes perfect sense to me thanks for the response When I opened the door is was raining. What’s the difference if we say: When I was opening the door it was raining. Does this sentence implies that the focus is on the action of opening the door and somehow the second action will have to not be out of this focus. I mean the correct sentence would be : when I was opening the door the knob came off . The second action the knob coming off is within the focus of my opening the door. Am i Right or I’m missing something?? Best wishes Andi

Hi Andi,

The past continuous shows an action that continued for some time, and it's often used to show a background action (i.e., one that provides a context) for another focal action (i.e., an action in the foreground). In these examples:

  • When I opened the door, it was raining.
  • When I was opening the door, the knob came off.

The focal actions are the past simple actions (underlined). The past continuous actions are a background or context for the past simple actions. 

If you say When I was opening the door it was raining, it's unusual. The choice of the past continuous suggests that these actions both had a meaningful duration and are both a context for another focal action, but the sentence doesn't mention any other action.

It's possible to use the past continuous for two actions to emphasise that they both happened at the same time and both had duration. For example, if I say While I was sleeping, she was working, I emphasise the duration of both actions. (But this meaning doesn't fit the door example because opening a door normally has an insignificant duration, compared to rain falling.)

I hope that helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Tue, 05/10/2021 - 19:09

In reply to by Jonathan R


Hi Jonathan R.
Thanks again for your response

We had been travelling / had traveled for over an hour when we realised we were going on the wrong direction.

I know that past perfect continuous is used to express duration and past perfect simple for a result. What I want is you interpreting why both tenses are possible here please. What do both of these tenses suggest in this context??
All the best

Hi Andi,

Both are possible because they both show actions that took place earlier than the second action ('we realised').

The past perfect continuous and simple are respectively used to emphasise, rather than express, duration and the result. (In fact, they both express an action that, logically speaking, had a duration and also some sort of result.) The difference between them is a question of what the speaker wants to emphasise. They aren't mutually exclusive.

If I say 'We had been travelling', I'm emphasising the duration over the result (i.e., I want to draw your attention to the fact that we'd been travelling for a long time). I might say this if I want, for example, to let you know how hard the experience was, or how tired I was - travelling for a long time is an explanation for the tiredness.

If I say 'We had travelled', I'm emphasising the fact that we'd travelled. I might say this if, for example, this is only one part of a longer story containing many other actions.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan R
Thanks again for your long response I really appreciate it and found it really helpful

I 1)swam as fast as I could to where I had seen the man but when I 2)got there he had disappeared completely.

Why past Continuous Is not possible in 1) and 2) If we say I swam to where…. This means that the action is completed and he reached the place where he had seen the man.
If we say I was swimming to where…. This means that he was in the middle of the process of reaching the place where he had seen the man.
So why past Continuous Is not possible??
Best regards

Hi Andi,

I'm glad it was useful! Actually, I think it IS possible to say 'I was swimming ...' in that sentence. I wouldn't say it is grammatically incorrect. However, this seems to be a part of a longer narrative sequence which extends beyond this particular sentence, and it's common for past simple to be used for actions in a narrative (i.e., to present actions one by one, sequentially).

I wouldn't use past continuous for 2) because the past perfect means that 'he had disappeared' took place BEFORE 'I got there'. If it happened in the middle of the process, it would be 'when I was getting there, he disappeared' (past simple, not past perfect).

Does that make sense?

The LearnEnglish Team