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 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

 

Language level

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Average: 4.2 (5 votes)

Hi Peter Piper,

Good question! It's because these two actions are independent of each other, so we understand them simply as two actions in a sequence (i.e., one thing happened, then another thing happened). In this case, it's normal to use the past simple for both, mention them in the same order that they occurred, and use words such as 'first' and 'then' to make the order of actions clear.

Normally, the past perfect is used when there is some kind of cause/effect or other logical relationship between the past perfect event and the past simple event. For example:

-- When the police arrived, the thief had escaped. (The thief escaped in order to avoid being caught by the police.)
-- She looked really sad but I didn't know what had happened. (The thing that had happened is the cause of her looking sad.)
-- I looked in the letter box yesterday and the letter still hadn't arrived. (Checking whether the letter had arrived is the reason why I looked in the letter box.)

Does that make sense?

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lexeus on Mon, 20/09/2021 - 07:59

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Hi Team Is it possible to use the past perfect tense with an infinitive? Here is my sentence: The travelers at Faye's guest house had organized a big party that night to continue celebrating the water festival. Thanks for your help, lexeus.
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 20/09/2021 - 10:41

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello lexeus,

Yes, it's correct to use the infinitive like that in the sentence you ask about. This is called an infinitive of purpose and in principle can be used with any tense.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your help, Kirk. For me, the past perfect tense is one of the most difficult to use correctly, and the grammar guides on the internet only give examples of its use with the simple past tense. Could you tell me if it's possible to use the past perfect with the past continuous? For example: The travelers who were staying at Faye's guest house had organized a big party that night to continue celebrating the water festival. Also, do you know where I can find a definitive guide to using the past perfect tense? Thank you, Best regards, lexeus

Hello again lexeus,

The sentence you ask about is correct -- very well written, in fact.

It looks to me as if you already know how to use the past perfect very well, but if you want to do more, I think the best thing you can do to become more familiar with it is notice how it's used when you encounter it in speaking and writing. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with any other resource that could serve as a 'definitive' guide.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk, Thanks for your reply. I should have said 'exhaustive' instead of 'definitive' guide. The biggest problem I have with the past perfect tense is this: When you use the past perfect tense, do the verbs that follow it take the simple past tense or do you have to continue using the past perfect tense? For example: He had made sure of covering his tracks when he took her out there and showed her the house. (past perfect tense followed by simple past tense) Or does everything have to stay in the past perfect tense? Using the same example: He had made sure of covering his tracks when he had taken her out there and had shown her the house. (all in past perfect tense) I appreciate your help and hope I'm not taking up too much of your time. All the best, lexeus
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Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 21/09/2021 - 15:50

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello lexeus,

Yes, no worries -- I understood what you meant! Let me see if I can help you with this particular case.

In many situations, it's not absolutely necessary to use the past perfect. For example, the sentence you mention could be written with 'made sure' instead of 'had made sure'. (By the way, I'd recommend 'sure to cover' instead of 'sure of covering'.)

This means that when someone uses the past perfect, often they want to make it clear that one action in particular took place before others -- and these other actions aren't always described in the same sentence. Usually our background knowledge of a situation or reality in general will make it clear what the sequence of actions is, or other words will make it clear; by using the past perfect, we're drawing the reader or listener's attention to one action in particular.

This of course doesn't apply to all situations. An easy example of when this doesn't apply is when the past perfect is used to speak about an unreal past (e.g. 'If I had studied philosophy, I would have become a writer.') But in many other situations where someone is speaking about several actions or conditions in the past, they use the past perfect to single out one of them which they want to emphasise came before something else.

It's difficult to describe, but I hope that helps you a little. Please don't hesitate to ask again if anything I said wasn't clear.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk, Thanks for your help and advice. You've helped me to look at the past perfect tense in a different way. Is it grammatically incorrect to say 'had made sure of covering' instead of 'had made sure to cover', or is it just a question of style? All the best, lexeus.
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Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 23/09/2021 - 07:44

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello lexeus,

I'm glad that helped.

Since the meaning here seems to be that the man covered the tracks on purpose, 'made sure to cover' is correct and 'made sure of covering' is not. When you do something for a purpose, then 'make sure to do' or 'be sure to do' are the forms to use. 'be sure of something/somebody' is a correct phrase, but speaks about confidence, not purpose.

For example, if your brother asked you 'Did you lock the car?' and you were confident that you did, you could respond 'I'm sure of it'. On the other hand, if your brother wanted to emphasise that you should lock the car after you use it tonight, he could say 'Be sure to lock the car'.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Thu, 16/09/2021 - 12:56

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Hi Kirk Sorry for posting in past perfect section but I didn’t know where to post else When I met Laura she was wearing a red dress. What’s the difference if we say “ when I was meeting Laura she was wearing a red dress” if this is not correct tense why? Her English is improving every day. What’s the difference if we say “ her English improves every day” Best regards Andi