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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

 

Nivel de idioma

Intermediate: B1

Comments

Dear Kirk,
From the link you sent me on "continuous forms", I found the following sentence. It has got the "past perfect" (had been learning) with a "simple present tense" (Do not know). My understanding is, normally we use the past perfect, if there is a chance of a "past referal point" (or past tence) in the sentance or in the following sentences. But here we only use simple presentence comes with the past perfect. Could you please explain to me further on it? My question here is - Can we use a past perfect, when there is a simple presentence? (ex: I think he had finished his work)
"I don't know how long she had been learning Spanish."
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

The form 'had been learning' is a past perfect continuous. There are different possible meanings, but in general it describes actions or events which started before a reference point in the past and which were still happening up to that time. In theory, all of the possible uses on the Continuous aspect page also apply here.

Imagine that our friend Nancy took a Spanish language exam last week and got a high mark. If we didn't know she was a student of Spanish, we might say something like that sentence: 'I don't know how long she had been learning Spanish'.

Does that make sense?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
Thank you very much for your patience to answer all my questions. Few months ago,one of my friends, John started a business and lost lot of money in it. I did not know anything about it. Another friend asked me as to how much John lost in his business. Can I say "I do not know how much John had lost (past perfect) in his business."
Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

The past perfect requires a second past time reference, but in your sentence you have only a present time reference (I do not know). Therefore, the past perfect is not possible here. You could use a present perfect or a past simple form:

I do not know how much John has lost in his business.

I do not know how much John lost in his business.

The first sentence (has lost) tells us that the business still exists and is still losing money.

The second sentence (lost) tells us that you are talking only about a past event, so the business either no longer exists, or is no longer losing money, or else you simply have no information about more recent results.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
It looks like that the past perfect needs a past reference. And the past perfect continuous does not need necessarily a past reference. Am I correct in my understanding ?
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson,

The past perfect needs to reference a second action in the past as it shows an action before another action in the past. It's not enough to simply have a past time reference; you need a second action (state/situation etc).

The past continuous needs to be placed in the past by a past time reference (a time reference, for example). This may be explicitly stated or implicit in the context.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter.
When you say (in your answer) "past continuous", I understand, it includes past perfect continuous as well. "I do not know how long she had been learning spanish" - in this example, I think, the past time reference is implicitly expressed. Is that correct?
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello again kingson,

My apologies. I must have misread your question as I thought you were asking about the past continuous, not the past perfect continuous.

 

Perfect forms always refer backwards. They are retrospective in that sense. Thus, the present perfect looks back from the present, the future perfect looks back from a point in the future and the past perfect looks back from a point in the past towards some time or event further in the past.

 

This means that there must be a second past time reference when using the past perfect. This could be an action or a state, or simply a past time such as a date. It could be explicitly stated or implicit in the context, but it must be understood.

 

All of this is true of both the simple and continuous forms of the past perfect. Both require a second past time reference point.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team 

Thank you so much Peter,
When you say the continuous form of the past perfect needs a second past time reference, please let me know, where is the past time reference in the following sentence. "I do not know how long she had been learning Spanish." Is it (past time reference) implied or expressed explicitly? And How? Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you, again
kingson

Hello kingson

I don't see any past time reference in that sentence. Presumably, this would have been stated in the context, e.g. it might have been mentioned in the previous sentence or two.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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