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 (122 votes)

Hello Sokhom,

'Ago' refers to a time before the present, so it doesn't work with past perfect, which refers to a time before another time in the past. We would use a phrase like 'before then' or 'previously', as you suggest.

As to whether the past perfect is appropriate, this depends on the context in which the sentence is used. Without context it's impossible to say if the past perfect or past simple is better in any given example.


In your final example the past perfect does not work as the party is still ongoing when it is noisy. In other words, we are not talking about a time before another time, but rather two past times which are simultaneous.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Naim22 on Wed, 23/02/2022 - 14:56


I had a question in this question
First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread.
why we select made not had made, as the action of making salad is the first one

Hello Naim22,

When we describe a series of actions, we don't normally use the past perfect. Since this sentence describes a series of two actions, the past simple is the correct choice here.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amynghiem on Mon, 14/02/2022 - 03:36


Dear team,

Can I use Past Perfect Tense to describe something happened in a period of time? For example: The company had experienced an exceptional growth over the period of 1990 to 1995

Thank you

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!