When we talk about something that happened in the past we sometimes want to refer back to something that happened before that time. We can use the past perfect tense (had + past participle) to do this.

 


Look at these two sentences.

 

  • John left the house at 7:30 yesterday morning.
  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday.

Both actions happened in the past so we use the past simple tense. But look at how we can combine the sentences.

  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday but John had already left the house.

We use the past perfect (had left) because the action happened before another action in the past (Mary rang the doorbell.)

Look at some more examples of the past perfect.

  • When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine she realised she had washed the cat.
  • I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together but we’d lost touch with each other.

The past perfect is used because they were at school before he received the letter. It refers to an earlier past.

Look at these 2 sentences.

  • James had cooked breakfast when we got up.
  • James cooked breakfast when we got up.

In the first sentence, the past perfect tells us that James cooked breakfast before we got up. In the second sentence, first we got up and then James cooked breakfast.

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect can also be used in the continuous.

  • I realised I had been working too hard so I decided to have a holiday.
  • By the time Jane arrived we had been waiting for 3 hours.

NOTE
The most common mistake with the past perfect is to overuse it or to use it simply because we are talking about a time in the distant past.

For example we would not say

The Romans had spoken Latin

but rather

The Romans spoke Latin

because it simply describes a past event, and not an event before and relevant to another past event.

Remember that we only use the past perfect when we want to refer to a past that is earlier than another time in the narrative.

 

Exercise

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Comments

Thanks for that kind of detailed explanation.

Is it possible to change the order of the facts for example:
When Jenny arrived at the airport the plane had taken off
Or
When the plane had taken off Jenny arrived at the airport.

Do both sentences have the same meaning? Is it correct to use both ways?

Hello Marcela,

The first sentence focuses more on describing the situation at the airport at a certain time. The second sentence focuses more on the time that Jenny arrived. It's a subtle difference, which wouldn't be important in many situations, but I'd say the first one is more common in general.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you KirK

HI , please can u tell me if this sentence is correct?
(After we had arrived at the airport,we had discovered that the travel agent changed our hotel).

Hello narjes,

It's difficult to say for sure without knowing the context, but in most cases this sentence would probably not be correct. It would be unusual to use the past perfect for sequential actions (as in this sentence). In any case, the first action in the sequence is the changing of the hotel. I'd recommend something like 'We discovered that the travel agent had changed our hotel after we arrived at the airport'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello
So here "The Romans had spoken Latin" is wrong? And the true type is "The Romans spoked Latin"?

Hello Zth,

There are contexts in which the past perfect would be appropriate but if you simply stating a historical fact then 'spoke' would be correct.

We use the past perfect when there is a second past time reference. For example, we might say 'The Romans had spoken Latin for centuries before it became the lingua franca of the ancient world'. Context is key here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

''I thought she had taken the chairs that John had made''

Could ''John had made'' here refer to the past before ''she'' takes the chairs?

Thanks in advance

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