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
Read the explanation to learn more.
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
Which tense do I have to use to describe several events that happened before a specific point in the past (-> the main events in the story). Do I stick to the past perfect or change to past simple to show the order of the events?
1. The police officer interviewed all the suspects. The butler said that during the dinner party, Mrs. Grey had left the dining room before the dessert had been served. She had gone to the kitchen to help her friend with the drinks.
2. The police officer interviewed all the suspects. The butler said that during the dinner party, Mrs. Grey had left the dining room before the dessert was served. She had gone to the kitchen to help her friend with the drinks.
Both of these are possible, but I'd recommend 2. The past perfect is one way to show that one event came before another, but using it too much can get confusing, and often we use other expressions to clearly indicate the sequence of events.
All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team
Thanks a lot for your immediate reply.
Concerning the expressions to indicate the sequence of events, could you please give me a few examples?
Thank you in advance.
There are many such expressions:
~ before, earlier, prior to
~ after (that), next, following (that), once, then, when
~ as, during, while
You can find some examples in context here:
The LearnEnglish Team
Which sentence is correct here:
1. I didn't recognize her at first because she changed so much.
2. I didn't recognize her at first because she had changed so much.
3. I hadn't recognized her at first because she changed so much.
Thank you so much!
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
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??
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
That really does make sense now thanks for the broad explanation very helpful indeed
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 ?