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.

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

 

Language level

Average: 4.2 (117 votes)

Hello Odette de C.,

I'm not sure I'd say that 2 'requires' the past perfect, but I would say that 'had eaten' is clearly a better option than 'ate'.

As you say, although the phrase 'the previous week' clearly specifies the time period, to my ears 'had eaten' sounds better. Perhaps it's because it provides a contrast, i.e. the change of verb form helps the reader see the change in habits. I'm not sure this is the best justification for using 'had eaten', but perhaps it's helpful.

I'm sorry I can't give you a more clear-cut answer, but as far as I can know, this is a question of style. In other words, it's something one learns from reading extensively and seeing how people tend to use this structure in many situations.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Many belated thanks, Kirk! It find that it takes a long time for the statistical regularities of the language to be discerned and correctly applied by the adult learner (at least, by this learner).

Best,

Odette de C.

Submitted by Odette de C. on Sun, 15/01/2023 - 19:29

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Dear LearnEnglish Team,

My question related to past perfect with "until".
1. Until 1970, he was seeing a psychiatrist.
2. Until 1970, he had seen a psychiatrist.
3. Until 1970, he had seen a psychiatrist for four years.
I’m inclined to think sentence no. 3 is correct – the perfect is required by the interval of time (“for four years”) and the past by the clear indication that the entirety of the action occurred in the past.
I’m far less confident about sentence 1 and 2. Are they both grammatically correct? If so, is there a difference is meaning? If not, it would be helpful to know why.

Thank you.

Odette de C.

Hello Odette,

Only sentence 1 is correct.

The action here is a repeated one (he saw the psychiatrist a number of times over several years rather than having one long meeting) and was ongoing, so a continuous form is needed.

Until needs the action or state to be still continuing to the time mentioned whereas the past perfect tells us that the action had already concluded, so sentences 2 and 3 are incorrect. You could use by instead of until in sentence 3.

 

One other point to remember is that the phrase with until does not usually come at the beginning of the sentence; at the end is much more common.

 

For more information on the topic try this page:

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/until

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

This is very helpful! Many thanks!

A follow-up question. Ongoing, repeated action -> continuous tense. Hence, as you helpfully stated, the following sentence is correct.
1. He was seeing a psychiatrist until 1970.

Does specifying the length of time "for four years" require a perfect tense? For instance, which of these sentences is correct?

2. He was seeing a psychiatrist for four years until 1970.
3. By 1970, he had been seeing a psychiatrist for four years.

If both sentence are correct, is there a difference in meaning?

Odette de C.

Hello Odette,

Both sentences are possible.

Perfect forms connect an earlier state or action with a later time. The require not only two points in time, however, but also some other connection such as a causal link or one action having an effect on another.

In your second example, the past perfect (had been seeing) implies some kind of connection with a later state or action. This may be explicit (stated in the next sentence, for example) or implicit (from the broader context). For example, you might be talking about a change in his mental state or a conclusion you want to draw about the effectiveness of the psychiatrist. Obviously this is dependent on the context in which the sentence occurs.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by DanielPero on Tue, 15/11/2022 - 23:05

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Hello!
Thank you for this lesson, could you please tell me if the sentence "Before this park was built, this building had been used a house" is correct and past perfect? Thank you in advance!

Hello DanielPero,

Yes, 'had been used' is a past perfect form of the passive voice and is correctly formed.

Whether it's the best form or not here depends on what is said before this sentence. If, for example, you'd been explaining how the building was used for something else before the building of the park, then your sentence would be using the past perfect appropriately. If not, 'was used' might be better (again, depending on the context).

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Skan on Sun, 13/11/2022 - 22:47

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Before getting to the area of work, the morning team had already done all the necessary documentation. Is it correct statement

Hello Skan,

Yes, that is grammatically correct. I would probably suggest something like 'Before arriving to the work area, the morning team had already gathered (or 'produced') the necessary documentation' but what you wrote is also fine.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team