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 (66 votes)
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Thank you.
Understanding the idea behind this structure is quite challenging for me. As far as I know, my native language does not have a similar structure. My aim is to find a clear guideline on how to use this structure. Unfortunately, there aren't many online resources available on this topic. My question after reading your explanation is, "Why didn't the author use the sentence "The pigs were dead for an hour" instead of the sentence "The pigs had been dead for an hour"?" I researched a lot on the internet and asked a lot of questions. I received no accurate or complete response from any of them. I cannot comprehend the following structures.

1) Have/has been + adjective or noun

2) had been + adjective or noun

A sentence such as "He has been a teacher" is unclear to me. What are the differences between "He has been a teacher" , "He had been a teacher", and "He was a teacher."?

She is happy. (She is happy now) => The verb "is" refers to the present. So, at the moment, she is happy.

The sentence "She was happy" refers to the past. So, she is not happy at the moment.

It is unclear to me what the following sentences mean.

"She has been happy" and "She had been happy"

"They had been dead" and "They have been dead"

Hi xaudxd,

I see! I'll just summarise the two examples again here.

  1. The pigs had been dead for an hour. Scientists made their hearts beat again.
  2. The pigs were dead for an hour. Scientists made their hearts beat again.

The first thing to say is that both are grammatical. It's not a case of one being correct and the other incorrect.

The past perfect (example 1) is used to show that the action is in some way meaningfully connected to another action. In other words, there is some implied meaning from the two connected actions. In this sentence, the implied meaning is amazement or astonishment at what the scientists did. Making their hearts beat again is amazing or remarkable in the context of the previous action (they had been dead for an hour). Here's another example: "I went to the bakery, but the last piece of bread had been sold." Here, the implication is that I actually wanted to buy bread. It's only an implication - it's not explicitly stated. You may like to have a look at the examples on the page above and try to see if it's clear what is implied in each one.

Example 2 uses the past simple for both actions. This shows a sequence - action 1 happened, and then action 2 happened. The fact that the two actions are put together may, of course, imply something, even without using the past perfect. (In this example, I think it still implies amazement.) But the point is that this meaningful connection is not necessarily the case with two past simple actions, for example: 

I finished my report. Then John finished his report. 

These actions occur in sequence, but they are not connected. It would not make sense to say "I had finished my report ..." (past perfect) here, because my finishing the report has no connection to John's action.

So, coming back to your question, why did the writer use example 1 and not 2? I would say that example 2 sounds like it's simply reporting two things that happened in a factual way, like a record of the events. In fact, if this was a record of the events, example 2 would probably be preferred. In comparison, example 1 sounds more like it's not just reporting what happened but also explaining why it's interesting or amazing. I note that this example is the headline of the article, and the purpose of a headline is to gain the reader's attention and make them interested to read the full article. For that reason, it's probably a more effective headline than example 2. As you can see, there's a lot to consider to explain the choice of structure.

I hope that helps! For your other questions, our Present perfect page has some useful information comparing the present perfect and past simple. If you have more questions, feel free to post them here or on other relevant pages. But if possible, questions that are less broad are easier for us to answer in the comment section, which has limited space. Thanks!


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mrxkms on Mon, 01/08/2022 - 11:03


You mean "simpl past", didnt you?

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.

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


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,
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user wisefool

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


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,
The LearnEnglish Team