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?

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 with before

We can also use the past perfect followed by before 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.

Adverbs

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

 

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Submitted by Dr Paul on Mon, 20/06/2022 - 18:14

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Dear Sir or Madam,

Could you explain to me why in the following paragraph (the last sentence) the past perfect is used and not the future perfect?

"Britain’s draconian attempt to crack down on illegal migration played out on many stages on June 14th. In Wiltshire a chartered plane stood ready to make the first flight deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda since that controversial policy was announced in April. In Strasbourg a late ruling by the European Court of Human Rights found that an Iraqi man who was due to be on the flight should not be deported until the legality of the policy had been scrutinised at a High Court hearing in July." ('The real test of the government’s Rwanda policy', The Economist, June 16th 2022)

Kind regards,

Dr Paul

Hello Dr Paul,

The basic meaning of the past perfect is to refer to a point in time further in the past than another point. Here, the 'other point in time' is the potential deportation of the Iraqi man, and the point in time further in the past is the scrutiny of the policy at the High Court hearing.

As you can see, it doesn't always necessarily only refer to the past; as in this case, it can refer to the future as well. The explanation on this page covers the most common uses of the past perfect, but there are others.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user wisefool

Submitted by wisefool on Tue, 14/06/2022 - 02:22

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Hi.
In the sentence, "I had a friend"
Is it correct to use past perfect "had" as there is no other past event happened? Generally, as you said, past perfect tense is used when there are two past actions happened, what exactly is the use of 'had'. Is it not past perfect?
Kindly clarify this.
Thank you.

Hello wisefool,

'had' is a past simple form; the past perfect form is 'had had'. 'I had a friend' describes a general past situation. An example of the past perfect is 'I got frustrated because I had already had many problems with my car': the problems with my car happened several times in the more distant past and then the more recent action is me getting frustrated.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 03/06/2022 - 02:50

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Dear Team,
How can I say the following in a sentence?

He was uncomfortable and needed some bread to eat. Does "was" apply to the past verb "needed" as well?(if so then it will change he meaning of the sentence) Or do I need to make into two different sentences (He was uncomfortable and he needed some bread)?

Please help me in this regard.
Thank you,
kingson

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

The word "and" can connect two elements of the same syntactic level, e.g.:

  • two verbs (He ran and fell. = He ran and he fell.)
  • two participles/adjectives (The bread was sliced and buttered. = The bread was sliced and it was buttered.)
  • two verb phrases (I passed the test and will apply to university soon.)

Your first sentence is grammatically correct. "Was uncomfortable" and "needed some bread to eat" are two verb phrases for the same subject, "He". 

No, "was" does not apply to "needed" here, since that would make "was needed" ("He was needed some bread to eat" is ungrammatical). However, in another sentence, "was" (or "be") could apply to the second verb (e.g. "was sliced and buttered" in my example above).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much Jonathan,
That's fine with this sentence (He was uncomfortable and needed some bread) but what happens in a sentence like this... "They were confused and asked some questions." (I clarified this question with your team some months ago). I was under the impression that "confused" is an adjective (more likely to be an adjective than the past participle of a passive verb). So I need a clarification as to understand the "two verb phrases for the same subject" for the sentence mentioned above (They were confused and asked some questions).
So which is the better way to understand - whether to take it as a "two verb phrase" or "more likely to be an adjective rather than past participle of a passive verb.
Thank you again,
Regards,
kingson

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

I think there are two possible interpretations of "They were confused and asked some questions".

  1. They were confused and they asked some questions.
  2. They were confused and they were asked some questions (by somebody else).

For meaning 1, the basic structure is "They A and B" (A = were confused, B = asked some questions).

For meaning 2, the basic structure is "They were A and B" (A = confused, B = asked some questions)

I agree that "confused" is more likely to be an adjective. To me, the most obvious meaning is that if somebody is confused, they ask questions to clear up their confusion (i.e., meaning 1). That seems logical. But in meaning 2, there's no obvious reason why somebody would ask questions to the confused people - although it is possible, of course - so looking at the sentence alone, we are unlikely to interpret it that way.

We cannot say which meaning is the better way to understand it, or which is the "correct" meaning, because we have no context for this sentence - we have no other clues to the intended meaning. So, I would say that meaning 1 is the most likely one, because its logic is more obvious, but meaning 2 is also possible. It really depends on the context.

Does that make sense? I hope it helps. By the way, if you have more questions about this topic, they would fit will on our Verb phrases page instead of the Past perfect page.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Jonathan for your patience to answer my question.
I have one more question to ask in this line.
So which one to follow in these two sentences?
1. Two phrase verb (e.g. was uncomfortable and needed)

So this sentence has not got any adjective functioning? How?
or
2. adjective function?(e.g. was confused and asked questions)
So this sentence has not got any two phrase verb ? How?

Hope, you have understood my question. If not I would be able to rephrase my question. Please let me know. I will definitely follow the link that you gave me.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hi kingson,

1. In "He was uncomfortable and needed some bread" (the verb phrases are in bold), yes - there is an adjective in the first verb phrase. The first verb phrase is made of a linking verb (was) and adjective (uncomfortable). The adjective is a part of the verb phrase.

2. Yes, "confused" is an adjective, but it is part of the verb phrase "was confused", together with the linking verb "was".

I hope that helps to make sense of it. Please post any more questions about this on the Verb phrases page. Thanks!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by yasseresmael on Wed, 18/05/2022 - 21:25

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hello guys
3. First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread.
why had made in this question would be wrong ? it is supposed that we use the past perfect for the first action in the past so why here the answer is made ?

Hello yasseresmael,

When we talk about a sequence of events in the past -- in other words, first one action, then another action, etc. -- we normally use the past simple, and this is especially true when we use adverbs like 'first', 'next' and 'then'. Since this sentence has 'first' and 'then' and describes a sequence of actions, the past simple is the best form here.

There are a couple of other pages in our English grammar reference with more detailed explanations that you might be interested in looking at: Talking about the past and Past perfect.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Wed, 18/05/2022 - 12:41

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Dear Team,
Context (hypothetical): I worked in an organization. I planned for a program. But I could not execute the program because my tenure with the organization came to an end. So I need to report it to somebody else. Can I follow the following ways to say it?
My tenure was finished even before I executed (but I did not execute the program) the program.
or
My tenure was finished even before I was about to execute the program.
Which one is correct. Please enlighten me in this regard. Or is there any other way of saying this?
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

Using the vocabulary you've suggested, I would say 'My tenure finished before I executed the programme'. There are many other ways you could also say this, such as:

  • My contract with XYZ ended before the programme began.
  • I planned the programme but was not able to run it since my contract ended before it began.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 08:37

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Dear Team,

I have got two different questions. Please help me in this regard.

Question1:

Context (its only hypothetical): My colleague "X" sent me an email. And I did not receive it for some reason. But my manager said to that I should have received it. But actually I did not receive it. So I try to explain to my manager in the following way....

"If "X" had sent me the email and I had not got it, whose fault is that?"
Or
"If "X" had sent me the email and I would not have got it, whose fault is that?"
Or
"If "X" have sent me the email and I have not received it, whose fault is that?"

Please let me know, which sentence would be gramatically appropriate to this context and why.

My second question is...

Context: My friend wanted me to open up a book and indiacte a picture from it and I am reporting it to somebody else.

He replied back to me it would be relevant if I opened the Book and indicated that particular picture.
Or
He replied back to me it would be relevant if I open the Book and indicate that particular picture.

Thank you so much for all your answers. You are doing a great job for people like me- trying to learn English.
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

In the first situation, I would say 'If he sent me the email, I didn't get it. Whose fault is that?' 'I didn't get it' is better because I know for sure that I did not get the email.

In the second situation, only the first sentence is correct. I would probably say something like 'He told me to open the book and point out a particular picture', but your first option also works. The second does not -- 'open' and 'indicate' need to be in a past form.

We're happy to help you here. You might also consider checking our English Online classes, where you can work through materials on your own and then speak about them with other students and a teacher.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,

Thank you very mcuh, Kirk for suggesting me to join the English online. I will do that.
I have a question for you, here. Please help me.
I understand the past tense has difference functions in English.
1. If you did it he would be angry (It is said in past tense but it is a futuristic statement - it is an imaginative sentence but indicates the future action)
2. He told me to do it until he came. (It is also past tense but it also indicates the future or present condition, because I am doing it at the moment until he returns)
And one more question on this second statement...
I can understand this sentence at the start (He told me to do it until...) but the last part of the sentence really annoys me, because the "coming" has not happened yet, but the tense is in a past form (he came). How can I understand this? I think if he has not come back yet it should be in a future tense (until he comes). Please clarify this for me and help me to understand this in a proper way.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hi kingson,

It depends on a) whether this person ('he') has already come at the time the speaker speaks this sentence, or b) whether he still hasn't come at the time of speaking.

If it's a), then the past simple form 'came' reports a past event and so the past tense form makes more sense.

If it's b) -- which I think is what you're asking about -- then it's also correct to say 'until he comes', since, as you point out, he hasn't arrived yet. In situation b) it's also correct to say 'until he came'; in this case, the past tense 'came' refers more to the moment in the past when he spoke to me than it does to the later time when he is due to come.

This definitely makes the sentence with 'until he came' more ambiguous. When it's important that there be no ambiguity, you could say 'until he comes' or add another phrase or sentence that makes it clear hasn't yet arrived.

I hope that makes sense!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,

That's a fantastic explanation. Thank you so much.

So I acn also say " He told me to do it until he comes"
Is that right?
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

Yes, that's right. If he still hasn't come when he say this sentence, you can say 'until he comes'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 07:26

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Dear Team,
Which of the following is correct? Please help me in this regard.

1. Clean out bathroom drain with machine whilst the exhaust fan has been removed to complete the test.
2. Clean out bathroom drain with machine whilst the exhaust fan is removed to complete the test.

Thank you for your help!
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

If I had to choose one of these two options, I suppose I'd go with 2 because 'whilst' and 'has been removed' don't work well together. If I were able to, I would phrase this sentence differently, something like 'After removing the exhaust fan, clean the drain with the machine to complete the test.'

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by venkatbc on Sat, 16/04/2022 - 13:02

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Dear Sir, Is the below sentence grammatically correct?
Your grandmother was arrived at the airport.
Or should you be using 'had' instead of 'was' ?

Hello venkatbc,

The sentence is not correct. As you say, you could use 'had' here:

Your grandmother had arrived at the airport.

'Had arrived' is past perfect; 'was arrived' would be past simple passive. Of course, which form is correct (or whether another form such as past simple) will depend on the context and the speaker's intention.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by htnper on Sun, 03/04/2022 - 20:31

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Can I ask you a question related to the example below( cite in the book'' A university grammar of English''.)
"He telephoned the police. There had been an explosion. [1] ''
→The past perfect of the verb in one sentence and the simple past in the other fix the temporal sequence of the information conveyed in the two sentences of [1] .The past perfect forms allow the two sentences to appear in reverse sequence without any obscurity.

I feel so confused with the explanation, specifically in sentence ''The past perfect forms allow the two sentences to appear in reverse sequence without any obscurity.'' It doesn't seem to agree with the first sentence of explanation. Why?
I hope you will reply me soon, thank you so much!

Hello htnper,

The past perfect leaves no doubt as to the sequence of actions: it describes an action before another action in the past described with the past simple.

Normally, if we have two actions in successive sentences we assume that the action in the first sentence occurred before the action in the second sentence. The past perfect allows us to change the order of the sentences for dramatic effect or narrative style and still keep the chronological sequence clear.

I don't see any conflict with the explanation here; it appears consistent to me.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Abgely on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 15:57

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Hi guys, I have a more specific question not about the way the grammar is used but rather if it could be used in a police interrogation.
Imagine you want to go backwards in the chain of events. Like,
"Lea had eaten ice cream before she went to the hotel."
"What had Lea done before she ate ice cream?"
"Lea had taken a walk in the sun before she ate ice cream."

Would you think of this as a rather natural or unnatural conversation?

Thank you very much in advance.

Hello Abgely,

These sentences are all grammatically correct. Whether or not they'd be used in a police interrogation depends on the officers conducting the interrogation, the suspect and the situation in general, but I think the police would be more likely to use past simple verbs ('Lea ate ice cream before she went ...', 'What did Lea do before she ate ...', etc.). When we're talking about a sequence of events that includes many different events and are going through them step-by-step, we typically use the past simple to speak about the concrete actions involved in that sequence.

If at some point after they'd discussed the sequence of events, the officers wanted to clarify one specific part of the sequence, they might make use of the past perfect to draw attention to two particular actions they're trying to work out the timeline for, but even I think they'd be more likely to use adverbials ('first', 'before', 'then', etc.) to clarify the situation.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

is it ok to use past perfect after "before" whenever it refers to the second verb

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,
Kirk
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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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.

Jonathan

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?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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.

Jonathan

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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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,
Regards,
kingson

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,
Kirk
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,
Regards,
kingson