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 (66 votes)
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Dear Jonathan,

Thank you very much for your responses. I understand the ongoing status and relating to present moment can be mentioned by the present perfect tense. I have a new question now. Sometimes we use present perfect tense to relate to a futuristic action.
e.g. After you have finished (present perfect) the work come and see me (future action).
In this case it is not an ongoing action or it is not related to present/current situation.
So please explain to me how we can understand this kind of verb (present perfect tense) use in a futuristic action.
Thank you,

Hello kingson,

In time clauses with words like 'when', 'after', 'until' (and other expressions) that refer to a future time, a present simple verb form is typically used, but it's also possible to use other present time verb forms such as the present perfect.

After you finish the work, come and see me.
After you have finished the work, come and see me.

There is no difference in meaning between these two sentences. In theory, the present perfect of the second one puts a bit more emphasis on the work being completed. But in the case of a verb like 'finish' which by its very meaning refers to completion (or not), this emphasis is lost.

In general, although English verb tenses are named with a time word (such as 'past', 'present' or 'future'), the times of the actions that these verb tenses refer to are not always the same as the time the verb tense's name suggests. Your question about the present perfect here is one example of this; another is the present continuous in 'Tomorrow I'm going to the cinema', where a so-called 'present' form actually refers to the future.

It's important to remember this when thinking about English verb tenses.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by re_nez on Tue, 09/11/2021 - 19:44


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.


Hello re_nez,

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.

Submitted by Natasa Tanasa on Sun, 31/10/2021 - 11:52


Hello everyone!

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

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