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 (126 votes)
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Hello ashiecajlenreese,

Often we use the present tense to talk about a scene in a film or story. We typically do this when we're describing what happens in the scene, though depending on what you are using the scene to say or argue in your text, it's also possible to use the past tense.

I'm sorry that's very vague, but it's difficult to give a precise answer without knowing more. If you want to share a few sentences of your text with us, we should be able to give you a more specific answer.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

example sentence: "the scenery he saw that day was the beginning of his gruesome odyssey". this scene is in the first episode and the character is now grown up. which one is the better tense? past or present?

thank u for the explanation, sir

Hello ashiecajlenreese,

That could be correct, but it depends more on the sentences before and after this one. (I'm sorry that this was not clear in my response.)

For example, if you are writing an essay about how a film uses foreshadowing in different places, it would probably be better to use the present tense ('the scenery he sees that day is ...'). But if you're just describing how the character is thinking back to that first day, then the past tense (as you wrote it) is best.

If you'd like to share more of your text, please feel free to do so.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by sheishasti on Sun, 05/11/2023 - 10:52


Hello dear every
I have a question. I have been learning this grammar. I'm afraid of forgetting these. How do I review them actively?

Hello sheishasti,

I think the best thing is to pay special attention for past perfect forms as you read and listen to English. When you see or hear a past perfect form, try to figure out why it was used. If it makes sense to you, great! If not, check this grammar page or ask your teacher or us about it if you need to. If you need materials to read or listen to, please check our Skills and General English sections, where there's a lot to choose from.

We also have another Past perfect page and one called Talking about the past that you could refer to for different explanations and other exercises. If that's not enough, there are also lots of past perfect practice exercises on the internet that you could search for.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by tunalee on Thu, 02/11/2023 - 13:48


As the past perfect's usage, it's used to talk about time up to a certain point in the past. I wondered why the answer to the below example is "ate". Can we use the past perfect because the time is before a certain time in the past - "before Covid 19"?
Eg: Before Covid 19, 50% of Americans ate out once a week for convenience and for the enjoyment of it"
Many thanks!

Hello tunalee,

In this case, the verb 'ate' refers to something that was true for many people did regularly over a period of time.

It would be a bit strange to say 'had eaten' in this sentence because eating out once a week is a repeated action; we don't typically use the past perfect to speak about repeated or periodic actions in this way.

Whenever it's possible to use a past simple form and also a past perfect form, we typically use the past simple one unless we want to emphasise the action for some reason. You might find our Talking about the past page useful, because there all the most commonly used tenses to speak about the past are explained together.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

Profile picture for user Asala Mohammed

Submitted by Asala Mohammed on Thu, 28/09/2023 - 18:20


Dear teachers,
I hope you doing great, I have an enquiry.
you mentioned before that we can't use past perfect to talk about a single past tense action, but in the example (It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May) why does it have just one past tense (hadn't rained)?
could you explain this point to me, please?
Kind regards,
Asala Mohammed

Hi Asala Mohammed,

Thank you for your question! To be precise, we use the past perfect to talk about a past action that is related to another reference point in the past. This reference point can be:

  1. another past action (e.g. The plants died because it hadn't rained for months). 
  2. a point or moment in the past (for example: It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May). 

If there is no other reference point in the past, the past perfect isn't correct.

I hope that helps to understand it.


LearnEnglish team

Thank you teacher Jonathan,
so then, if I want to talk about a point or moment in the past should I use "Still"?
Can you give me some examples about this situation, please?
Is my example right? They still hadn't replied on my mail.
Best regards,
Asala Mohammed