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?

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 with before

We can also use the past perfect followed by before 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.

Adverbs

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

 

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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 09:32

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

1. There a a number of phrases similar to this which we use to introduce opinions, beliefs, claims and so on:

It was thought to...

It was claimed to...

It was believed to...

The construction is a passive form and you can change the tense:

It is thought to...

It has been thought to...

These phrases are followed by an infinitive form. This could be the bare infinitive for a present meaning:

He was thought to be a member of the Mafia.

Or you can use a perfect infinitive:

He was thought to have been a member of the Mafia for most of his life.

Other forms of the infinitive are also possible: passive infinitives, continuous finitives etc. The form used will depend on the context. 

 

2. Yes, I think has been is more appropriate here as it describes an unfinished past time.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Dear Peter, You have made me to do a research in the world of "infinitives." They are very useful in learning English vocabulary. Thank you very much for that. I still have a question for you. "I want to play" In this above sentence how can we differentiate between the "normal verb" and the infinitive? Is "want" a normal verb? "to play" an infinitive? Could you please enlighten me in this regard. My next question is... Can we consider all the present perfect as the unfinished tense in the past time? Thank you very much for your patience for answering my questions. Regards, kingson

Hello again kingson,

In your sentence 'want' is a normal and regular verb which is followed by an infinitive:

I want to play.

[want + to verb]

Some verbs, such as want, are followed by infinitives. Others are followed by gerunds. It's very useful to learn verb patterns such as this. You can read about different verb patterns in the relevant section of our grammmar reference:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/clause-structure-and-verb-patterns

You'll see links to specific pages at the bottom of the page.

 

Perfect describes an aspect rather than a tense. Perfect forms are retrospective, meaning that they look back from one time to another: seeing the past from the perspective of the present, for example, or seeing the past from the perspective of a later past.

 

The present perfect describes actions and events which exist in an unfinished past time frame as we see them. This last phrase is important: it's how we see the actions and events that is key. The action may be complete, but we see it as unfinished because its results or effects are still relevant. For example:

I went to Spain in 2005.

This is a past event, complete and finished.

I've been to Spain.

This is present in the sense that I'm telling you that I have knowledge or experience in my head now which is in some way relevant: I can give you advice, perhaps, or maybe I'm telling you that I'd prefer to go to another country as I've already been to Spain. The context will make clear why the knowledge is relevant; the present perfect simply tells us that it exists.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Thu, 08/07/2021 - 09:33

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Dear Team, "In today's News paper, it was said that the market rate (for the houses) seems to go up." In this sentence it started with a past tense ( in was said) but the further information in this sentence is in present tense (seems to go up). Can we formulate a sentence like this? I need a clarification here - "it was said" - is a past reference so the following sentence should also be in past tence (seemed to go). Please enlighten me in this regard. "I did not know you worked here." In this above sentence the person (you) actually is currently working there. But due to past reference (I did not know) we need to use the past tense (you worked here). If we use this past tense (you worked here) does not indicate that the person does work there now. So please explain to me how I can understand the English grammar here. Thank you so much for all your answers to my questions so far. Regards, kingson

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 09/07/2021 - 07:01

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson,

We don't comment on examples from sources we don't know as we have no way of knowing if the source is reliable in terms of language. However, I can comment on the general rule here and say that it is perfectly possible to use a present form after a past reporting verb if the present verb describes something which is still true or has a general time reference.

For example, this sentence is correct:

It was said that male drivers are worse than female drivers.

The words were said in the past (thus 'was said') but the comment itself is not time specific, so a present form is fine.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, The general rule in English grammar is the past reference (was said) should have the past tense comment. So how can we distinguish the comments that are time specific and the comments that are not time specific? So that sounds to me that sometimes the grammar rules (as I mentioned above) can be changed with such things (comments that are not time specific) in English. Is that right? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

There is no fixed rule like that. The verb form in reported or indirect speech does not always change. For example:

Direct speech: It will rain tomorrow.

Reported speech 1: She said it would rain tomorrow

Reported speech 2: She said it will rain tomorrow

Both forms are correct here. The second version makes it clear that tomorrow has not yet come; the first form could be used before tomorrow or after it.

 

In the example you gave, the form 'was said' has a past time reference: the comment was made in the past. However, the rest of the sentence does not necessarily have to contain a tense shift. It depends on the context and the speaker.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Wed, 30/06/2021 - 11:07

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Dear Team, Is this right? I have seen him when he visited our church. Here I am trying to make a statement which reflects the present perfected truth (have seen) with a past reference (he visited). But "when" denotes the past. So please let me know whether I can form a sentence like this (as above). Thank you, Regards, kingson

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 01/07/2021 - 07:06

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingonselvaraj,

As you say, 'when' with the past simple ('visited') denotes a finished past time, so the sentence is not coherent and is not correct.

 

You could use the past simple (I saw him...) or change the second half (I've seen him in our church / visiting our church)

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sun, 13/06/2021 - 09:12

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Dear Team, They were killed and burried. They were confused and asked questions. The first senrence is a passive voice but has not had a "were" before burried. So we assume the "were" before confused can also be there before burried. In the second sentence is also a passive voice, but the axillury verb "were" applicable only to the verb "confused", and not for "asked". Can we make sentences like this? Please help me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Hello kingson,

We call the omission of words 'ellipsis'. This can be done in many different ways and in general the best guiding principle is that we should avoid confusion. Usually the context will our meaning clear, but of course confusion can arise.

Your analysis of the first sentence makes sense to me. The auxiliary 'were' is understood to apply to both past participles.

In the second sentence, 'confused' is more likely to be an adjective than the past participle of a passive verb, but you're right in noticing that the second verb is understood to be active. In part this is because 'were' is understood to be a link verb, but also it would make the most sense in most contexts.

Note that there is nothing in the grammar of the second sentence that indicates what the sentence means. My interpretation above is just that -- that is, it is just an interpretation. In fact, it could be that 'were confused' is a passive verb, which would make it likely that 'asked' is actually an abbreviate form of 'were asked'. I chose the interpretation I explained above because, as a native speaker, I've seen or heard similar constructions in lots of different instances and know that my interpretation is more likely.

Part of what students of languages need to do is be exposed to large amounts of the language in question so that they can develop similar experience.

I hope this helps you make sense of this issue.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Samin on Fri, 11/06/2021 - 07:15

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Hello, I need to clarify this, if they are grammatically correct sentences.. 1.My mind was very busy. As present perfect- My mind has been very busy. Is it correct? 2.The train arrived. The train had arrived ( as past perfect) what is the difference in meaning for no.2 between two sentences

Hello Samin,

All of these sentences are correct.

In the first pair, the present tells us about the situation now, but does not tell us anything else. The present perfect contains the additional information that the situation began before now and continues up to now. Presumably the context would make it clear if you are talking about a short time (since this morning, for example) or a long time (all your life, for example).

 

In the second pair, the first sentence tells us about a particular completed event in the past. The second sentence describes an event in the past before another event in the past, with the implication that in some way the two events are connected. Again, the context would make it clear what the other past event is.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, your answer helps me a lot..it's quite clear now

Submitted by Tony1980 on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 12:50

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Hi Kirk Thanks for your answer. I didn’t say that you said that continues forms weren’t possible here in fact my teacher said so since think is a stative verb and cannot be used in progressive. Was she right ? All the best Andi

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 16:12

In reply to by Tony1980

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Hello again Andi,

Stative verbs are not usually used in continuous tenses, but it is sometimes possible. If you follow the link, you'll see an example in the Verbs that are sometimes stative section of the explanation.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Wed, 24/03/2021 - 22:21

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Hi thank you in advance I’m an Albanian student of English can you please help me with past perfect tense Which tense is correct in 1. 2. And 3. And an explanation please of why it is correct? Her parents 1. always thought/ were always thinking/ had always thought/ had always been thinking that their little girl was clever because she 2. learnt/ was learning/ had learnt/ had been learning to read early and 3. tried/ was trying/ had tried/ had been trying to talk almost immediately after she was born. Please if possible email your response to ------------------ as I may not find it among hundreds of other responses .I’m also new to this site.

Hello Tony1980,

As a teacher, I want to ask you what you think the answers are and why. If you try to work out the correct verb forms, you will learn a lot more and then we are happy to help you with the ones you find confusing.

I'm afraid we don't email our users responses to their comments, and our House rules prohibit you from sharing such personal information in your comments, which is why your email address has been deleted.

Best wishes,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk I’m really sorry for showing my email address I didn’t know it was prohibited my apologies but I showed it as I was looking forward to your response and I didn’t want to miss it. As for the correct answers I think 1. Had always thought. Is correct because if we use simple past it means that they think their daughter was smart only at the moment of speaking while with past perfect they thought this during all the years 2.had learnt is correct because it refers to action before another past action and it focuses on the result and not on the action like had been learning 3.tried is correct I think because it comes immediately after another past action like it says in the context after she was born Best wishes Andi

Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 26/03/2021 - 10:04

In reply to by Tony1980

Permalink

Hello Andi,

Don't worry about including your email address! I just wanted to explain why we deleted it. Thanks also for explaining what you think the answers are. This helps us understand what our users are thinking and give more specific answers.

In this case, there's actually more than one answer for some of the gaps; which one is correct depends on the context and on how old the little girl is now. If, for example, this little girl is now 12 and her parents were thinking these things when she was 2, then the past simple or past perfect forms would be correct -- more specifically, for 1, 'always thought' or 'had always thought'; for 2, 'learnt' or 'had learnt'; and for 3 'tried' or 'had tried'.

There is very little difference between the past simple and past perfect forms if this is the situation, but the past perfect would suggest some other point of time in the past (not mentioned in this sentence, but understood from another sentence or the general context) that these events occurred before.

I hope this helps you make sense of it. Please let us know if you have any follow-up questions.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk Your response was very helpful indeed I really appreciate it. However to be fully clear I need to go step by step over it again if that doesn’t bother you . Now if we see the first part of the sentence “her parents always thought “ is cause/effect related to the next part “ because she had learnt to read early” In the second part of the sentence we have “ had learnt” which is past perfect and meaning that this action happened first . So first she learnt to read then her parents realized and thought that she was smart. So if the cause/effect relation between these two parts of the sentence imposes us a past perfect tense in the second part “ had learnt to read early” why did you say in your response that it can be either “learnt to read “ and “ had learnt to read”. I’m a bit confused. Sorry for being so long. All the best Andi

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 29/03/2021 - 16:39

In reply to by Tony1980

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Hello Andi,

Most of the time, using the past perfect is a choice, not a requirement. The 'cause/effect relation' that you describe doesn't impose the use of the past perfect in this case, either -- it's a decision the writer could make to use it. In a sentence like this, the past perfect can be used to clarify the order of the events, but it is not necessary to do this.

The sentence you ask about is a good example of this. If the writer or speaker wanted to make it very clear that their daughter learned to read early and that this is what made their parents think she was clever, then 'had learned to read early' would be a good choice. But it could be that this is not a particularly important point, or the writer might think that it's obvious that first the girl did something extraordinary and after that her parents noticed it, and so could use the past simple form. In this case, the reader would likely still suppose that the reading came first, though it would be less clearly indicated.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk Thanks a lot for the elaborated response I really appreciate it. My next question would be what about the progressive tenses in this paragraph 1. Were always thinking 2. Had always been thinking and so on. Why they are not possible here . All the best Andi

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 07:03

In reply to by Tony1980

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Hi Andi,

I don't think I said that those forms were not possible, but rather that other forms were more common. In fact, these forms are possible here in a context where we wanted to emphasise that, for example, they had these thoughts again and again over a period of time. If you follow the link, you'll see a detailed explanation of the past continuous form, and also links to explanations of other verb forms. If you have a close look at them, I think this will help you understand the different possibilities here.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by vanshh03 on Tue, 09/03/2021 - 07:02

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I have a major doubt in past perfect and past simple. When we say a sentence which has no time period mentioned like 1) I have done my work. 2) I did my work. Which one of these is correct? In my opinion both of them should be correct.(If not please correct me) I know that if we mention a time period then it cause a difference between past simple and past perfect. For past simple- a definite point in past For past perfect- time till now(unfinished time)

Hello vanshh03,

The past simple requires a definite past time, but this can be implicit in the context and not explicitly stated in the sentence. Both sentences are grammatically correct in terms of how they are formed, but we can't say more without know the context in which they are used.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Safan on Thu, 25/02/2021 - 12:54

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Thank you so much for clarifying that the past perfect is reserved for specific conditions. It is painful to read (as I recently did in a new novel) sentences such as, "She had been born in 1960, in a house that had been too small." Memoirs are the worst for this! One grammar teacher told me that the past perfect is used for clarity, to describe an "interrupted condition" (as explained above), or in "if-then" constructions followed by the past conditional (If I had gone....then I would have..."). In other Latin-derived languages, there is a simple past to describe completed actions, and an imperfect tense to describe background actions. Since we don't have an imperfect tense in English, we can use the simple past, past progressive, or "used to" as the context requires. No need for overuse of the past perfect.

Submitted by sisi on Fri, 19/02/2021 - 11:25

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Hello, please can you explain me why in the sentence number 3 the correct answer is 3. First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread. made? Because according with the explanation you have to use past simple as a second act and past participle as a first act. In the sentence make the salad occurred first.

Hello sisi,

When we talk about a series of consecutive actions in the past, we usually use the past simple for each of the actions. That is why 'made' is the correct answer here.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 08:58

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Dear Team, There is a meeting tomorrow and I am going to explain to my friend about the meeting, day after tomorrow, in relation to how the meeting went. So can I say the following? I will let you (my friend) know (day after tomorrow) how the meeting (meeting has not even started but going to happen tomorrow) went (can we use past tense (went) here? while the meeting has not even started). Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson,

Yes, the sentence 'I'll let you know how the meeting went' communicates the idea that you explain. The context makes the time period that 'went' refers to clear.

Good job!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, Could you please further explain what do you try to say by saying "The context makes the time period that 'went' refers to clear." I could not understand the real meaning of this sentence. Please explain. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson,

Sorry if that was confusing. What I meant was that the context makes the time period clear. In other words, the time period that the verb 'went' refers to is clear in the context of the sentence.

Hope that helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Kirk. Now it is clear to me. Regards, kingson

Submitted by Maria Don Chandy on Fri, 22/01/2021 - 17:35

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b. We are taught honesty. (past perfect) could you help me with this with explanation

Hello Maria Don Chandy,

I'm afraid I don't understand the instructions for this. If you are supposed to change the verb to a past perfect form, then you change the verb 'are' into the past perfect ('had been'): 'We had been taught honesty'.

By the way, the verbs 'are taught' and 'had been taught' are passive forms.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Loc Duc on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 10:11

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the second rule to use the past perfect is to show the order of 2 past events, the past perfect shows the earlier actions, and the past simple shows the later actions. and why we can't apply this rule to this sentence? First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread. Answer: made why not 'd made

Hello Loc Duc,

It's true that the past perfect shows one event was earlier in the past than another, but there also needs to be a connection between the two events. For example:

I got up, had a shower and made a cup of coffee.

Here, the past simple is used for each action as there is no connection between the events. They form a sequence but they do not affect or cause one another.

 

The thief had escaped when the police arrived.

This example is different. The thief escaping is clearly related to the police's arrival, as they were hoping to catch the thief. In other words, the escape changed the situation for the police in a key way. Thus, the past perfect is used.

 

 I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much Peter, Every time I see you answers, a new avenue opens up for my better understanding in English. Keep it up. "John told me that Tim had finished his work." In the above reported sentence (Direct speech form for the above sentence- John said to me "Tim finished his work") - can we consider that Tim's finishing of work has influenced John's statement? Are they (john tole me & Tim had finished ) related to each other? Are they connected? If so, how? and in what way? Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Submitted by Zuzanna on Mon, 04/01/2021 - 20:25

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Hello, Could you tell me why in the sentence "My grandma died before I was born." the author did not use Past Perfect to say ''My grandma had died...."?

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 08:41

In reply to by Zuzanna

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Hello Zuzanna,

It's a question of preference, I think. Both forms are grammatically possible.

The past perfect emphasises a connection between the two events and would probably be used if the writer wanted to talk about how not having their grandma had changed their life, for example.

The past simple describes two events in the past, but does not necessarily mean that they are connected or influence one another.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hatchaitchi88 on Sun, 03/01/2021 - 21:57

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Hi! I saw recently example in English Grammar in Use. " The ship sank because the engineer didn't call for help until it was too late". I think, "...because the engineer hadn't called until it was too late;" or why there must be didn't? I don't know, really. past perfect because thing (or action) hadn't done until moment. What would you say?

Hi Hatchaitchi88,

It's a good question :) Both the past perfect (hadn't called) and the past simple (didn't call) are correct here.

The action of calling for help happened before the ship sinking, so the past perfect makes sense.

But, speakers often simplify by using the past simple instead of the past perfect, if the order of the events is clear in the rest of the sentence. In this situation, it's logical that not calling for help would happen before the ship sinking. It says because the engineer didn't call for help ... . 'Because' shows what caused something, and a cause must logically come before the effect. So, that's why the past perfect can be simplified to the past simple here.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Oh, now I understand, thank you. There is one more question. In grammar test 2 on this page, question 6: "We had the French exam this morning. It wasn't as hard as I'd expected, though." I'd expected = "I had expected", right? First I thought that there would have been Past Perf. Contin., but then I thought, maybe there is Past Perfect, because "except" is non continuous verb; So, what is true? Is my quess right?

Hi Hatchaitchi88,

Yes, it means I had expected here. Actually, expect is used in both simple and continuous tenses, and both make sense in this sentence.

  • It wasn't as hard as I'd expected.
  • It wasn't as hard as I'd been expecting.

The continuous form emphasises that 'expecting' had some duration (i.e. it went on for some time).

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by freudian99 on Wed, 30/12/2020 - 12:10

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Hello. I am supposed to do a test on Past Perfect Simple and Past Simple. Is this correct? The two men needed to get back to their camp quickly because they HAD ALREADY USED all their gas to make water from snow. Also, they DIDN'T BRING any extra food with them on this trip. Yates HAD TRIED to lower Simpson down the mountain on a rope, but Yates couldn't hold him so he HAD TO cut the rope. After trying to call him for several hours Yates was sure that Simpson HAD DIED so he walked down the mountain alone. However, Simpson HADN'T BEEN dead. He somehow managed to get out of the hole and get back to camp. Yates HAD ALREADY BURNED Simpson's clothes and was preparing to leave. He WAS very happy to see him because he HAD LOST all hope to see him alive.

Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 01/01/2021 - 10:27

In reply to by freudian99

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Hello freudian99,

That's mostly correct. I'd recommend 'hadn't brought' for the third gap, 'tried' for the fourth, and 'wasn't' for the sixth.

Good luck on your test!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yigido on Tue, 29/12/2020 - 15:50

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Hi Team Teacher,I have 2 questions 1) I sometimes see just one event like:"We had already seen the film." Why we don't say"We have already seen the film"? What's the difference? 2)We use past perfect to identify which happened first and we have 2 events, but Why we use past perfect with 1 event? We don't need to identify this event?

Submitted by Jonathan R on Wed, 30/12/2020 - 06:59

In reply to by Yigido

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Hi Yigido,

These are good questions :) Yes, if the past perfect is used, there must be a second past action or time. But, it could be somewhere else in the conversation, i.e. a previous or later sentence. It doesn't need to be in the same sentence. For example:

  • We switched on the TV, and Star Wars was on Channel 1. But we had already seen the film. So, we changed the channel.

In this example, the past perfect (we had already seen the film) shows that that action happened some time before the other past actions.

 

If the narrative is in the present, then we use the present perfect.

  • We have already seen this film. Let's change the channel. (i.e. change the channel now)

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team