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 (126 votes)

Hi amynghiem,

Yes, that is fine! However, the past perfect is used with reference to a second past time or past event, e.g. the 'sudden closure' here:

  • The sudden closure of the company in 1996 was a surprise. The company had experienced exceptional growth over the period of 1990 to 1995.

Otherwise, we would normally use the past simple ("The company experienced ...").

I hope that helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir,
I have a similar problem here. You said the past perfect refers to the second past time or past event. The example sentence shown in the article above "It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May", however, only shows one action. So, my question here is, why it can be past perfect instead of being past tense.
Thank you very much.

Hi Sue2022,

In this sentence, It still hadn't rained means that there was no rain not only at the beginning of May, but also in the time leading up to the beginning of May. This is the "Time up to a point in the past" meaning. Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Gretalicious on Wed, 09/02/2022 - 07:11


Hello people, I`ve had some problems with the use of contraction in the past perfect. I`m reading a book at the moment, and the tenses are often in simple past in past perfect. Some examples:
"He had dumped the stolen car..." / "He`d no idea how she`d made the connection,..." / "She had walked to the..." / "She`d already made it..."

These sentences all are in past perfect, aren't they? Why are the contractions used so irregular? Are there some rules about the contractions ?

Thank for help a lot!

Hi Gretalicious,

Most of those verbs are in the past perfect: (1) he had dumped, (2) she'd made, (3) She had walked, (4) She'd already made. Actually, it is regular to contract the auxiliary verb had to 'd, as in (2) and (4). We could also contract (1) to he'd dumped and (3) to She'd walked.

One verb is in the simple past: He'd no idea (= He had no idea). Here, the verb had is the main verb (not auxiliary verb). It's a bit less common to contract have when it is the main verb - it's more often contracted when it is the auxiliary verb. But it is sometimes done, as in this example.

Does that make sense? I hope it helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Jonathan,
thank you for your response! And ses this make totally sense :)

But in relation to the contractions: Is there a rule, how to apply the contractions? Because in these examples, sometimes they are used and sometimes not. That's what confuses me...

Hello Gretalicious,

Contractions are generally a way of making writing more informal, as they reflect the way we speak in informal situations. They are therefore commonly used in informal writing. For example, in our comments we often use contractions because these are informal interactions, and when I write emails or messages to my friends, I also use them.

They are also commonly used in writing that is neutral -- somewhere between formal and informal -- such as emails to colleagues in your workplace or, depending on cultural factors, even professors at universities. In general, though, if you're not sure whether contractions are appropriate or not, it's probably better not to use them.

Beyond that, I'm afraid it's quite difficult to make any useful generalizations, but if you have a more specific situation in mind, please let us know.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sun, 19/12/2021 - 05:11


Dear Team,
"I have noticed that he broke it."
Is this a reported speech?
How can a pesent perfect (have noticed) and a past tense (broke) come together in a sentence?
Can the sentence after the conjunction (that) be used or considered as holding the adverbial function? Or Is there any sentence that we can use as an adverbial sentance which comes after "that"? - can you please give me some examples?
Thank you,

Hello kingson,

This is not an example of reported speech because no speech (words) is being reported.

I'm afraid it's difficult to comment on this sentence without knowing more about what it's reporting. My first impression, though, is that it's odd because if he broke it in the past, how is it that I've noticed it now -- in other words, how do I know for sure that he broke it and not someone else?

Could you explain it a bit more?

I don't think I'd say that the 'that' clause has an adverbial function. If you can tell us more about this, maybe we can help you with it, but we don't generally go into the nitty gritty of sentence structure -- our main focus is on helping people use English rather than on parsing it.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Thank you very much for your response.
Normally when I tend to make sentences like this (I have noticed that he broke it), I normally believe that the second part of the sentence is a past knowledge/memory (he broke it) that we can relate to current situation (I have noticed). Am I correct in my thinking? - This is my basic query.
Hope, this time I have asked my question in a clearer way.
Thank you,