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 (127 votes)
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Submitted by Khangvo2812 on Fri, 04/08/2023 - 17:32


Could you tell me the difference between these two sentences?
I had ridden a bike before I bumped into Joe
I had been riding a bike before i bumped into Joe?

Hello Khangvo,

Without any other context, the first one means that sometime in your lifetime, you rode a bike before you bumped into Joe. It would be quite an odd thing to say unless there were some situation that made it clear it were talking about another time period other than your lifetime.

The second one means that shortly before bumping into Joe you were riding a bike. This one sounds completely normal.

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Ahmed Hassan5 on Mon, 24/07/2023 - 11:02


Dear Sir,
Could you please give me a hand to understand the difference between the past simple and the past perfect ? it was clear for me until I found these sentence (I started as a trainee on a local newspaper and then I started a three-year apprenticeship) as I know if we have 2 actions in the past, the earlier one should be Past Perfect. so please clarify as much as you can,
Thanks in advance

Hello Ahmed Hassan5,

Actually, it's not true that we always use the past perfect for the earlier past action. As you've noticed in the sentence you mention, we often use the past simple. In this case, it is a sequence of actions that a person did and it's already very clear which one happened first. Other tenses such as the past continuous are also possible.

There are different reasons someone might use the past perfect, but often it's when we are already in a past time mindset and then look even further back into the past. I think our Talking about the past page would be really useful for you, as it mentions several different tenses together and so it's easier to see the different uses of them. Please have a look and then if you have any more questions, don't hesitate to ask us!

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by inci.yildirim on Sat, 15/07/2023 - 21:16


Dear Sir,

in grammer test 2, 3rd questions
Why the answer is not the " 'd made"? Doesn't the word 'first' indicate time?

Hello inci.yildirim,

We use past simple to show sequences of actions. The past perfect is used when one action occurs before another and the two actions are connected in some way. For example, the earlier action might cause the later one, or might change its meaning. In question 7, for instance, the past perfect is used because the fact the homework is not finished is the reason why Sara can't go for a walk. In your example, however, the two actions do not influence each other in any way; they are simply separate actions.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Baljeet kaur on Tue, 11/07/2023 - 06:54


Respected sir,

Could you please elaborate me more time up to a certain point in the past because I dont understand.

Hi Baljeet kaur,

Sure. The idea is that the past perfect action happened before the other past time that is mentioned. For example:

  • She'd published her first poem by the time she was eight. 

The past perfect action (She'd published) happened before the other past time mentioned in the sentence (she was eight). We don't know exactly when she published the poem. We just know that it happened before she was eight - i.e., at some time up to (= before) the point that she was eight years old.

I hope that helps to understand it.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by boboyogo on Sat, 17/06/2023 - 01:36


Dear teachers,
What's the difference between:
1a) Many people come to the funeral to pay their last respect.
1b) Many people have come to the funeral to pay their last respect.(this is used in the text)

2a) The festival promotes unity.
2b) The festival has promoted unity.
2c) The festival has been promoting unity.
2d) The festival is promoting unity.
[All examples in #2 seem to be talking about 'present' & 'fact' to me and I don't know which is the most native and appropriate way to describe the situation.

3a) Throughout the years, he changes.
3b) Throughout the years, he is changing.
3c) Throughout the years, he has been changing.
3d) Throughout the years, he has changed.

4) What are the 'time hint' of when to use present perfect?

5) What are the 'time hint' of when to use future perfect?

Thank you very much!

Hello boboyogo,

Could you please explain to us what you see the differences in meaning to be? We need to have a better idea of what you're struggling with, as it would take a long time to write a response to your comment as it stands right now.

There are a few grammar explanations I'd ask you to look at first (if you haven't already):

Thanks in advance!

All the best,
LearnEnglish team