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

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Hi khaledAl5,

No problem! I'll try to help.

- I had studied for one hour when my friend called me.

The past perfect simple shows that "had studied" happened before "my friend called me". It may have ended before or at the same time your friend called - the past perfect simple does not specify this.

However, it's important to note that in the context of this sentence using the conjunction "when", it's very likely that the intended meaning of the speaker/writer is that it ended at the same time your friend called. This is not because of the past perfect simple, but because of the composition of the sentence, putting the two actions together with "when", which is often used to show things happening at the same time. It's the most obvious meaning to interpret.

You can compare this similar example: My friend called me. I had studied for one hour earlier that morning. It should be clearer here that "had studied" is not necessarily until the time of the related past simple action. Adding "when" in the sentence, however, suggests that meaning.


- I had been studying for one hour when my friend called me.

The past perfect continuous shows that the action ("had been studying") was ongoing when your friend called. It either (1) finished when your friend called, or (2) continued after your friend called and finished some time later.


The past perfect simple and continuous do overlap in meaning, but I would not say that they are interchangeable. The continuous form emphasises the duration of the activity, while the simple form emphasises the completeness of the activity.

Does that make sense?


LearnEnglish team

Thank you for this clarification
I got the idea

But the past perfect continuous could be completed before the other action when using “for”

- My friend called me. I had been studying for one hour earlier that morning
This means that the action finished before the other action, not necessarily until the time of the related past simple action, right?

Thank you for your excellent explanation.

Hi khaledAl5,

I'm glad it was useful. Actually you're right, it is not necessarily until the time of the related past simple action. However, to express that meaning - an action ongoing at a particular moment (in this case, a related past simple action) - is a common reason for choosing the continuous structure, and it's more likely to choose the continuous structure than the simple one to express that meaning. It is not the only available meaning, though, as you pointed out.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by ridhi on Mon, 05/06/2023 - 12:46


Dear Sir,

Could you pls go through the text and explain why they have used past perfect and past perfect continuous.(capital letters)

1)The fight in the carpark with the dwarf had made (make) him thirsty. He walked quickly along 46th Street in search of an air-conditioned bar where he could get out of the heat and think.

He HAD BEEN WALKING (walk) for only a few minutes, when it suddenly occurred (occur) to him that he was being followed. (follow)

Why can't we use past perfect 'had walked'? How the meaning would change?

2 )Anyway, we were sitting (sit) in the plane and HAD JUST TAKEN (just / take) off when there was (be) a loud bang from the right hand side of the plane and I could see a lot of smoke coming from one of the engines. Of course, everyone started (start) looking around but the plane carried (carry) on flying normally

Why not simple past as sitting in the plane and taking off is one after the other event.?

Request you to please help sir this constant shifting of tenses has really confused me.Its bit difficult to keep all the rules in mind while writing or speaking .

Thank You!

Hello ridhi,

In 1, it's possible to say 'had walked', but unless I've misunderstood the writer's purpose here, 'had been walking' is much better. The first sentence describes the background to the action that is narrated in the second sentence. Then the first clause of the third sentence describes the situation in which the thought that he was being followed occurred. We often use a continuous form to describe a situation in which another action is performed. If you used the simple form here, it would suggest more of a sequence -- first he walked, then the idea came. But that doesn't seem to be the idea.

In 2, the sequence of events is actually: 1) we took off, 2) we were sitting on the plane when there was a loud bang. It's true that you sit down before a plane takes off, but the description here narrates the sequence I mentioned. This also sounds very conversational, i.e. the speaker is thinking on their feet, and sometimes we switch between times as we tell a story simply because we haven't carefully planned it out and so it can come out sounding a little convoluted.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by AboodKh9 on Sun, 04/06/2023 - 12:34


Hello team!
I have a problem using these two tenses.
The past perfect, and the past perfect continuous.
For example:
What is the difference between these two sentences:
1) I had waited for two hours when my friend came.
2) I had been waiting for two hours when my friend came.

I know that past perfect continuous indicates the duration of the activity or the situation, but even in past perfect there is a duration!! I am confused!

There is a difference? Or just a matter of emphasis?

Thank you in advance.

Hi AboodKh9,

It's a matter of emphasis. The continuous form emphasises the duration and ongoing-ness of the activity. The simple form emphasises the completeness of the action, even though it also has duration, as you observed.


LearnEnglish team

Thank you so much for the response.

If you please, just one more thing.

Is there a difference between the two tenses regarding the time when the action was completed?
For example:
1) I had been watching a movie when my brother entered the room.
(Does this mean that "watching the movie was completed at the same time my brother entered? Or before the time my brother entered? Or continued after my brother entered?)

2) I had watched the movie when my brother entered the room.

** I know that the action in past perfect simple completed before the other one, but the past perfect continuous is confusing here because I don't know if the action was completed before the other one Or was completed at the same time as the other one Or continued after that!

** and using Since or For means that the action in the two tenses (past perfect simple and continuous continued until the other one started? Or could be finished before that?
Thank you for your patience,
I will be grateful for you.

Hi AboodKh9,

No problem. 

In sentence 1 (past perfect continuous), we just know that "watching the movie" was until the time that your brother entered, and included that moment, i.e., it has the same meaning as the past continuous: I was watching a movie when my brother entered. But the focus is different: the past continuous focuses on that moment when your brother entered, while the past perfect continuous focuses on the time until that moment.

The past perfect continuous does not show clearly when "watching the movie" ended - it may have ended at that moment, or continued and then ended some time afterwards. There's no information about that.

In sentence 2 (past perfect simple), the movie-watching was already completed some time before your brother entered.

If you add a phrase with since or for, it doesn't change the meanings that I explained above. However, phrases showing duration are most commonly used with the present perfect continuous, since that also emphasises duration. You can use one with the past perfect simple too, e.g. I had watched the movie for two hours when my brother entered, but this is likely to be understood as meaning something similar to the continuous sentence, i.e. watching the movie continuing until the moment that your brother entered, because the sentence construction suggests that meaning or continuing until that moment (... for two hours when ...). 

I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team