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 (122 votes)

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

Hi Jonathan
Thanks again for your response

It was a hot day so I decided to prepare salad for lunch.
We can’t say “ I was deciding “ as this tense puts emphasis on the action and it make it looks like the speaker was deciding whether to prepare salad or not that day and that the speaker put a lot of thinking for the process which is not what he wants to convey here.

I heard a loud voice so I ran outside to see what 1)happened /2) was happening .
1) means that the event now had finished and whatever caused the person shout now was over I mean this is what simple past highlights
While 2) means that the action was caught in the middle and that the person was still arguing or fighting someone

Sorry for being too long I just want you to tell me if the above reasonings are correct as I want to test my knowledges.
Best regards

Hi Andi,

Yes, exactly! I think you've explained the meanings well.

In the second sentence, 'had happened' (past perfect) is also possible, since this event happened before the other two actions in the sentence (I heard / I ran outside) and caused them. That's probably my preferred answer - but it's also true that people often simplify by using the past simple instead of the past perfect when the order of events is clear enough in the sentence.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan

Thanks for your response
I’m really glad I’d explained the tenses well

For years 1)I’d told / 2)I’d been telling all my friends that I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of London.

2) is correct 1) not correct
I wonder why 1) is not possible here assuming that the speaker doesn’t want to emphasise duration “ for years “ can 1) be possible in this sentence?

3) I’ve discovered / 4) I’ve been discovering a taste of silence I didn’t know I had.
3) is correct 4) not correct

Here 3) is correct because the speaker wants to focus on the discovery of the taste (result) and and not on how long this discovery was and makes it look like he is continuously discovering tastes.
Am I correct??

Best regards

Hi Andi,

Actually, I think 1) is grammatically possible. But 2) is probably preferred because including the phrase 'for years' at the beginning of the sentence suggests that the speaker does want to emphasise the duration.

I agree with your comments on 3) and 4).

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

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