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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Language level

B1 English level (intermediate)

Submitted by muhaos on Sat, 13/08/2022 - 17:24

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I am a little confused between those two examples:
- We'd finished all the water before we were halfway up the mountain.
Here is "before" used without "had" for the action that didn't happen at that time.
But in the following part of the lesson is told that we need to use "had" after "before" for action that was not done when the past simple action happened, as in the example:
- They left before I'd spoken to them.

Hello muhaos,

We use the past perfect when it is important to make clear that one action was before another action in the past. In both of your examples this is the case.

 

We'd finished all the water before we were halfway up the mountain.

> finishing the water happens before reaching halfway up the mountain

 

They left before I'd spoken to them.

The meaning here can be expressed as follows: When they left I had (still) not spoken with them.

> not speaking to them happens (doesn't happen) before leaving

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by polinanana on Tue, 09/08/2022 - 17:35

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I'm confused with the use of the Past Simple and Past Perfect in one sentence in some cases.
For example 'They had left the country before their daughter was born' I understand that first they left, then the daughter was born. But here ''Mum phoned before she'd heard the news'' why the firs part is not in the past perfect, she first phoned, then heard

Hi polinanana,

It's because the two sentences you mention have different meanings of the past perfect. In the first sentence, the past perfect shows the earlier of two actions, as you explained.

The second sentence is different. The meaning here is an undone or incomplete action (not which action happened earlier). Quoting from the page above:

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.

Your sentence sentence means that at the time of the past simple action (the time that Mum phoned), the other action ("hearing the news") was not done or not complete. Unlike your first sentence, the past perfect does not indicate the order of events in time. 

It's also possible to rephrase the second sentence with the "earlier action" meaning of the past perfect: "Mum had phoned (past perfect) before she heard (past simple) the news". This is also grammatical.

I hope that helps to understand this tricky area of grammar!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by xaudxd on Tue, 09/08/2022 - 09:26

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I can't understand the difference between these two.
They had died.
They had been died.

Could you explain this grammar to me?
had + been + adjective

Hi xaudxd,

Actually, only sentence 1 is correct. The word "died" is a past simple verb, not an adjective. (The adjective is "dead".)

The verb "die" means to stop living. It's important to understand that "die" is not something that can be done to another person. Instead, for the meaning of "make somebody stop living", we need to use a different verb, e.g. "kill" - "They had been killed (in the accident)" or "They had been killed (by the attacker)".

Sentences using the past perfect are only used for particular grammatical meanings (see the page above). Other structures/tenses are also possible, e.g. "They were killed" (past simple).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello xaudxd,

There are many situations when you could use 'had been' + an adjective: 'they had been happy for many years, but then disaster struck', 'the building had been modern when it was first built, but after 70 years ...', etc.

In this case, the pigs died and were dead for an hour (at a particular time in this experiment -- the time when the scientists applied the OrganEx system), and then the pigs were treated. They had been dead for an hour and then showed some signs of life.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

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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