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 (122 votes)
Profile picture for user Farzad58

Submitted by Farzad58 on Wed, 13/12/2023 - 10:51


Is there any website that categorizes phonological problems of learners based on level or topic or both? for example, I want to know about the learners of B2 level problems about past perfect/

Hello Farzad58,

I'm not aware of a site that does this, but when I did an internet search for "typical pronunciation issues at cefr levels", a couple of results that might be useful for you came up:

  1. A presentation called Aspects of pronunciation across CEFR levels and some implications for language learning
  2. A presentation called Re-examining the validation of a holistic speaking scale: the (non-) applicability of pronunciation descriptors

I think pronunciation issues probably vary more based on a learner's linguistic background (i.e. mother tongues), but in the case of the past perfect, for example, I've worked with students on the pronunciation of the contracted form. In a phrase like 'they'd already eaten', working on pronouncing 'they'd' as /ðeɪd/ and 'they'd already' for fluency.

Hope this helps.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by ashiecajlenreese on Wed, 22/11/2023 - 04:11


I would like to ask u a question regarding tenses, sir. If I wanna talk about a scene in a movie/story/novel, which tenses should I use? is it present tense or past?

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!