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 kingson,

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

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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!

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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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


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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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


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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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