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)

Hello hosnisalman54,

Do you mean a sentence like 'Lea ate ice cream before she had gone home'? If so, yes, that is possible. We tend not to use the past perfect in informal situations and speaking in general, but it's not wrong to do so.

If that's not what you meant, could you please give an example sentence?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

That's exactly what I mean , but I need more clarifications and how the rule works :
He wrote about the description and position of stars before people had even seen them ....could you explain it .

Hello again hosnisalman54,

It's not exactly a rule, but perhaps the first thing to keep in mind is that using the past perfect is optional in most cases. We can usually use other words and verb forms to express the same idea, and that's what we tend to do in speaking. In this case, you could say 'He wrote about the stars before people even saw them' and that would be fine, for example. 'before' makes the sequence of events very clear.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the past perfect always refers to some other past reference point. This past reference point isn't always explicit; it sometimes comes in another sentence that's already been spoken or written. In the sentence you mention, however, the past reference point is explicit: it's the time when people saw these previously unseen stars. Perhaps it'd be helpful to think of three times here: 1) people not seeing these stars, 2) the astronomer discerning and writing about the stars, and 3) people seeing these stars for the first time. 'before people had even seen them' refers to 1.

Does that help?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhom on Thu, 10/03/2022 - 03:25


Hello, Sir!
I was wondering which sentence is correct.
1. He had met his wife 15 years ago. (I think 'ago' should be used with the past simple. Am I right?)
2. He had met his wife 15 years previously. (Can I use Past Simple?)
And I wanted to know if I can use the past perfect continuous 'had been having a party' in the sentence below because of the result ' it was noisy'.
E.g., It was very noisy next door. Our neighbors were having a party.
Thank you for your time.
Best Wishes!

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