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 (123 votes)

Thank you very much, Jonathan for taking effort to answer my questions.

I have few more questions to ask to make it clearer for me.

1. Could you please explain to me what you have meant by second and third conditional?
2. The first sentence (If he repaired it, he would know if there was any fault in it) indicates imagined present and future situation. Therefore it is applicable to the present situation as well (because normally I think the words "if" and "would" in sentence always indicate the future situation)? In that case the first part of the sentence (If he repaired it) is in a past form, so please explain to me as to how I can take it for a present/current situation. Could you please provide any other examples for this?

I have got other questions to ask, but I will ask them bit later.

Hope, you understand.
Thank you for your help!

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

No worries :) We are happy to help as much as we can.

1. Conditionals are structures that express a result which is dependent on a condition. You can find explanations and examples on these pages (click the links):

2. Yes, "If he repaired it" refers to an unreal present action (or future action). The past verb form (repaired) here indicates that the action is unreal (i.e., he does not repair it, or it is unlikely that he will repair it), rather than the action happening in the past. For more examples, please see the page about second conditionals linked above.

If you have questions about these, we welcome you to post them on the relevant page.


The LearnEnglish Team

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


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



The LearnEnglish Team

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


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!


The LearnEnglish Team

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


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.


The LearnEnglish Team