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 (121 votes)

Hi Natasa Tanasa,

All three can be correct :)

One action occurred before another (her change occurred before me not recognising her). So, the past perfect in sentence 2 works here.

Many speakers also simplify the past perfect to the past simple if the order of events is made clear in another way. Here, the word 'because' shows that 'she changed' happened before 'I didn't recognise' in a cause-effect relationship (logically, a cause must occur before an effect). The order of events is fairly clear, even without the use of the past perfect. So, I think some people would say sentence 1 as well.

For sentence 3, if we look at this sentence by itself, there is no reason to use the past perfect for 'I hadn't recognised', because there is no other past event that it was earlier than. But, if this is part of a real conversation, some other past event could be mentioned in a different sentence. For example:
-- "I realised yesterday that our new colleague is someone I went to school with! I hadn't recognized her at first because she (had) changed so much."

In this example, the past perfect works because the action ('I hadn't recognised') occurred before another past action ('I realised') and these actions are logically related.

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Tue, 26/10/2021 - 11:28


Hi Jonathan
Thanks for your explanation very helpful indeed

When mr. Brown came to the party all the guests were sitting at the table.
“ were sitting “ means that they started sitting before mr. Brown came to the party and they were still sat when he came . But isn’t it past perfect to indicate this kind of action. And as you mentioned in your earlier posts isn’t it wrong to use past continuous for actions happening before another past action??

Best regards

Hi Andi,

To answer this question it's important to understand that the verb 'sit' has two meanings.

1. to put yourself on a chair (an action)
2. to be in a chair (a state)

So, in your sentence, if you say 'all the guests were sitting' (past continuous), there are two possible meanings. It could mean that at that particular moment, the guests were in the middle of putting themselves on chairs (meaning 1 of 'sat'). Alternatively, it could mean that they had put themselves on chairs some time earlier, and were resting on their chairs at that particular moment (meaning 2 of 'sat'). In both cases, the past continuous shows a concurrent action/state, not an earlier one.

With the past perfect, you could say 'all the guests had (already) sat down' (meaning 1 of 'sit').

Does that make sense?

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan
That really does make sense now thanks for the broad explanation very helpful indeed
Best regards

Hi Jonathan
Previously, we have seen Dimmesdale’s conscious mind attempting to reason through the problem of his concealed guilt.
Isn’t previously, earlier and before followed by a simple past and past perfect? So why is it a present perfect here ?
Best regards

Hi Andi,

It depends on the timeframe of the text where these words appear, including not just this sentence but others before and after it too.

If the timeframe is the past, then normally these words occur with past simple and past perfect, as you stated. If the timeframe is the present, then they occur with the present perfect, and that appears to be the situation with this sentence. We can use present forms to tell a story or summarise something we have read, heard or seen - see the 'Advanced level' notes about the Present simple here:…

I hope that helps.

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LitteBlueGreat on Sat, 16/10/2021 - 01:21


Hello.. sir

The above has stated "Before" is used to show incomplete action but Could I use it to show a completed action?

"I had studied before I went to park to have fun"
Does it wrong?... Thank you

Hello LitteBlueGreat,

It's possible to use the past perfect with 'before' to show completed actions. However, the actions should be relevant in some way to the later action or state.

For example:
~ I had spoken to John several times before we started the meeting.
Here, each action of speaking is completed. We understand, however, that they are relevant to the later action (starting the meeting). Perhaps the earlier conversations gave the speaker some useful information, or perhaps they helped the speaker build a relationship which would be useful during the meeting.

When the earlier action is not relevant we use a past simple form, and in your example this is the best option, I think. You are describing a sequence of events, not two related events:
~ I studied / finished studying before I went to the park.
Of course, the context may make the actions relevant, but we don't have any context here so we cannot judge.

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for helpful explanation Sir.. I have several more questions and hope you could help me

Does The past perfect focus on activity without including experience that somebody keeps up to present?

Like : I have been to London (despite the action was done a long time ago but that past fact of travelling still remains in one's mind up to now)

I had been to London (If I focus on his experience Shouldn't it use present perfect, sir?.

Since a first time I have always thought that fact is maybe true before the speaker got amnesia/brainwashed but after their memory is back now, to me, it looks strange to use Past perfect on first speaker talk about their memories except that sentece above has come from 2nd speaker..

Could you give me other deeper explanations sir?