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 (117 votes)

Hello Peter,

Thank you very much.

I see. Would these be correct?
- Before our conversation yesterday, I had believed that you had gone to Harvard. (going was before believing; since tenses are relative to something, here, probably, they are relative to each other; you are not a student, you were one 20 years ago)
- Before our conversation yesterday, I had believed that you went to Harvard. (believing and going are at the same time; you are of student age, but now I know that you go to college at the University of Michigan)

Hi again Tony,

Yes, that's exactly it. Something similar to this can happen in conditional sentences. For example:

If he went to the party then he was an idiot. [real past condition with a result (conclusion) about the past]

However, when the result is not anchored in past time but is a general statement which we can draw from evidence in the past then we can have sentences like this:

If he went to the party then he is an idiot. [real past condition with a result (conclusion) which is generally true]



The LearnEnglish Team


Submitted by Dani Conti on Sat, 13/01/2024 - 04:55


Would you be so kind to tell me whether the use of past perfect is correct in the following sentence (had prompted):
Our analysis showed that the use of metaphors was more frequent in the translation of Cinderella, primarily due to the existence of specific verbal elements whose syntactic complexity had prompted the translator to express them metaphorically.
So, the analysis took place in the past, and it referred to another event (the translation of the book) that happened before the analysis itself.

Thank you!
Can you please check on the following sentence (it’s interesting)?

Our analysis showed that strong modal verbs were more frequent in the translation of ‘The Rule of Law’ due to the existence of a strong framework of rules in which they were embedded.

‘Were embedded’ emphasizes the state of being embedded? So they were still embedded in that framework; they were still there at the moment of my analysis/reading the translation.
And if ‘had been embedded’ was used, the emphasis would be on the action of embedding itself, right? This would mean that the action of embedding was already completed before my reading the translation.
It’s kind of tricky to choose between the two, as they both seem correct to me.

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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