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.


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


Take your language skills and your career to the next level
Get unlimited access to our self-study courses for only £5.99/month.

Language level

there was a question in my exam that want's me to correct the grammatical mistake but I don't know the answer the question was:I have already studied since 2 hours.
a:I have been studied since 2 hours
b:I has been studying for 2 hours
c:I have studied 2 hours ago
d:I studied since 2 hours
e:I have already studied for 2 hours

Hello NoorEldeen,

The correct answers is 'e'.

'a' is grammatically possible but makes the sentence passive.
'b' is incorrect. You need to say 'have' after 'I'.
'c' is incorrect. 'Ago' shows finished time so past simple is needed ('studied') not present perfect ('have studied').
'd' is incorrect. 'Since' needs a point of time (12.30) and not a period of time ('2 hours'). 'Since also shows unfinished time so needs the present perfect and not the past simple.

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Team,
I have two things to ask.
1. I have a friend (We are friends for 10 years)
How can I say that?
A. He is my friend for the past 10 years
B. He has been my friend for the past 10 years.
In which way I can say it? Please help me in this line.
2. It seems "to have finished."
What sort of tense (to have finished) is used here and what does this mean?
Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

1. Sentence A is understandable, but sentence B is the correct one. The verb needs the present perfect to support the meaning of "for the past 10 years", a duration of time from the past until the present.

2. This is called a perfect infinitive. The structure is "to + have + past participle". It shows that the action ("finish") is already complete, i.e., it happened and finished sometime before the present moment. You can read more about it on this Cambridge Dictionary page:…

I hope it helps :)

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you very much for your response. So (from your answer I understand) we can also say "He is my friend for 10 years." Is that right?
I have another question...
My friend bought a house few days ago and the house has got a young tree at the front yard. I asked him the following question using present perfect.
Has this tree been there already? (meaning my friend did not plant it but it comes with the house when he bought the house)
Is the question right ? Or is there any grammatical error in it?
Following that I have another question.
Can I put my question in the following way.
Had the tree been there already when you bought this house?
Please let me know whether this is correct or not?
Thank you again.

Hi kingson,

About "He is my friend for 10 years", some people do say that, and I expect that the meaning (from the past until now) will probably be obvious from the context of the conversation if somebody said that in real life. But, it would be considered incorrect from a grammatical point of view. So, can we say it? Yes, we can, but whether it's appropriate or not depends on the situation. In a formal situation, for example, I would say "He's been ..." instead, as there is usually a higher expectation that people should speak clearly and accurately, but in a casual conversation it would probably be acceptable.

For the question about the tree, it should be in the past simple, because you are asking about a past time:
-- Was this tree there already (when you bought the house)?

The past perfect ("Had the tree been there ...") doesn't work here, because the tree was still there at the moment of buying the house, and is still there now (i.e. it was and is an ongoing state).

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Jonathan,

Can we use the present perfect to indicate the "on going status" (the tree is still there) of the tree?
Has this tree been there already, when you bought the house? (I know this refers to a past time (when you bought) but still want to know whether we can construct a sentence like this).
Thank you,

Hi kingson,

No, because the time of "when you bought the house" is in the past, not ongoing, as you pointed out. But we could ask "How long has the tree been there?" (i.e., until the present moment) using the present perfect.

I hope that helps.

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you very much for your responses. I understand the ongoing status and relating to present moment can be mentioned by the present perfect tense. I have a new question now. Sometimes we use present perfect tense to relate to a futuristic action.
e.g. After you have finished (present perfect) the work come and see me (future action).
In this case it is not an ongoing action or it is not related to present/current situation.
So please explain to me how we can understand this kind of verb (present perfect tense) use in a futuristic action.
Thank you,

Hello kingson,

In time clauses with words like 'when', 'after', 'until' (and other expressions) that refer to a future time, a present simple verb form is typically used, but it's also possible to use other present time verb forms such as the present perfect.

After you finish the work, come and see me.
After you have finished the work, come and see me.

There is no difference in meaning between these two sentences. In theory, the present perfect of the second one puts a bit more emphasis on the work being completed. But in the case of a verb like 'finish' which by its very meaning refers to completion (or not), this emphasis is lost.

In general, although English verb tenses are named with a time word (such as 'past', 'present' or 'future'), the times of the actions that these verb tenses refer to are not always the same as the time the verb tense's name suggests. Your question about the present perfect here is one example of this; another is the present continuous in 'Tomorrow I'm going to the cinema', where a so-called 'present' form actually refers to the future.

It's important to remember this when thinking about English verb tenses.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Which tense do I have to use to describe several events that happened before a specific point in the past (-> the main events in the story). Do I stick to the past perfect or change to past simple to show the order of the events?
1. The police officer interviewed all the suspects. The butler said that during the dinner party, Mrs. Grey had left the dining room before the dessert had been served. She had gone to the kitchen to help her friend with the drinks.
2. The police officer interviewed all the suspects. The butler said that during the dinner party, Mrs. Grey had left the dining room before the dessert was served. She had gone to the kitchen to help her friend with the drinks.


Hello re_nez,

Both of these are possible, but I'd recommend 2. The past perfect is one way to show that one event came before another, but using it too much can get confusing, and often we use other expressions to clearly indicate the sequence of events.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello everyone!

Which sentence is correct here:

1. I didn't recognize her at first because she changed so much.
2. I didn't recognize her at first because she had changed so much.
3. I hadn't recognized her at first because she changed so much.

Thank you so much!

Hi Natasa Tanasa,

All three can be correct :)

One action occurred before another (her change occurred before me not recognising her). So, the past perfect in sentence 2 works here.

Many speakers also simplify the past perfect to the past simple if the order of events is made clear in another way. Here, the word 'because' shows that 'she changed' happened before 'I didn't recognise' in a cause-effect relationship (logically, a cause must occur before an effect). The order of events is fairly clear, even without the use of the past perfect. So, I think some people would say sentence 1 as well.

For sentence 3, if we look at this sentence by itself, there is no reason to use the past perfect for 'I hadn't recognised', because there is no other past event that it was earlier than. But, if this is part of a real conversation, some other past event could be mentioned in a different sentence. For example:
-- "I realised yesterday that our new colleague is someone I went to school with! I hadn't recognized her at first because she (had) changed so much."

In this example, the past perfect works because the action ('I hadn't recognised') occurred before another past action ('I realised') and these actions are logically related.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan
Thanks for your explanation very helpful indeed

When mr. Brown came to the party all the guests were sitting at the table.
“ were sitting “ means that they started sitting before mr. Brown came to the party and they were still sat when he came . But isn’t it past perfect to indicate this kind of action. And as you mentioned in your earlier posts isn’t it wrong to use past continuous for actions happening before another past action??

Best regards

Hi Andi,

To answer this question it's important to understand that the verb 'sit' has two meanings.

1. to put yourself on a chair (an action)
2. to be in a chair (a state)

So, in your sentence, if you say 'all the guests were sitting' (past continuous), there are two possible meanings. It could mean that at that particular moment, the guests were in the middle of putting themselves on chairs (meaning 1 of 'sat'). Alternatively, it could mean that they had put themselves on chairs some time earlier, and were resting on their chairs at that particular moment (meaning 2 of 'sat'). In both cases, the past continuous shows a concurrent action/state, not an earlier one.

With the past perfect, you could say 'all the guests had (already) sat down' (meaning 1 of 'sit').

Does that make sense?

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan
Previously, we have seen Dimmesdale’s conscious mind attempting to reason through the problem of his concealed guilt.
Isn’t previously, earlier and before followed by a simple past and past perfect? So why is it a present perfect here ?
Best regards

Hi Andi,

It depends on the timeframe of the text where these words appear, including not just this sentence but others before and after it too.

If the timeframe is the past, then normally these words occur with past simple and past perfect, as you stated. If the timeframe is the present, then they occur with the present perfect, and that appears to be the situation with this sentence. We can use present forms to tell a story or summarise something we have read, heard or seen - see the 'Advanced level' notes about the Present simple here:…

I hope that helps.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello.. sir

The above has stated "Before" is used to show incomplete action but Could I use it to show a completed action?

"I had studied before I went to park to have fun"
Does it wrong?... Thank you

Hello LitteBlueGreat,

It's possible to use the past perfect with 'before' to show completed actions. However, the actions should be relevant in some way to the later action or state.

For example:
~ I had spoken to John several times before we started the meeting.
Here, each action of speaking is completed. We understand, however, that they are relevant to the later action (starting the meeting). Perhaps the earlier conversations gave the speaker some useful information, or perhaps they helped the speaker build a relationship which would be useful during the meeting.

When the earlier action is not relevant we use a past simple form, and in your example this is the best option, I think. You are describing a sequence of events, not two related events:
~ I studied / finished studying before I went to the park.
Of course, the context may make the actions relevant, but we don't have any context here so we cannot judge.

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for helpful explanation Sir.. I have several more questions and hope you could help me

Does The past perfect focus on activity without including experience that somebody keeps up to present?

Like : I have been to London (despite the action was done a long time ago but that past fact of travelling still remains in one's mind up to now)

I had been to London (If I focus on his experience Shouldn't it use present perfect, sir?.

Since a first time I have always thought that fact is maybe true before the speaker got amnesia/brainwashed but after their memory is back now, to me, it looks strange to use Past perfect on first speaker talk about their memories except that sentece above has come from 2nd speaker..

Could you give me other deeper explanations sir?

Hello again LittleBlueGreat,

Perfect forms are retrospective, which means they are forms which look back from one point in time to another earlier time. We use them because the earlier action/state has an influence in some way on the later time. In other words:
> the present perfect is used when a past event is relevant in some way to the present
> the past perfect is used when a past event is relevant in some way to a later past
> perfect modals, such as will have, can be used to show a future event which is relevant in some way to a later future event

Present perfect does not require a second action or time reference as it is already understood to be 'the present' - i.e. now:
~ I've been to Dublin.
[a past event which is relevant to now because it means I have a memory of Dublin, can give advice etc]

However, the past perfect requires a second time reference, either in the sentence or in the context:
~ I had been to Dublin before so I knew all the best places to go.
This is why perfect forms need to be looked at in context rather than in isolation. To analyse "I had been to London" we'd need to know the context in which it is said and to which later past it is referring.

The key point is not memory per se, but relevance: whether or not the first (earlier) action influences or changes in some way the later action or state.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello everyone,
I can't understand why in Grammar Test 2 (Grammar B1-B2 Past Perfect 2) in the sentence number 3. "First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread." the correct answer is MADE instead of HAD MADE. That because - from my point of view - I had first made the salad (earlier action) and after that I toasted the bread (second latest action). Again - from my point of wiev - this could be the basic example for "Past perfect for the earlier of two past actions" from the lesson. I'm sure that somewhere I didn't catch the point...
Thank you so much for your answer

Hi Peter Piper,

Good question! It's because these two actions are independent of each other, so we understand them simply as two actions in a sequence (i.e., one thing happened, then another thing happened). In this case, it's normal to use the past simple for both, mention them in the same order that they occurred, and use words such as 'first' and 'then' to make the order of actions clear.

Normally, the past perfect is used when there is some kind of cause/effect or other logical relationship between the past perfect event and the past simple event. For example:

-- When the police arrived, the thief had escaped. (The thief escaped in order to avoid being caught by the police.)
-- She looked really sad but I didn't know what had happened. (The thing that had happened is the cause of her looking sad.)
-- I looked in the letter box yesterday and the letter still hadn't arrived. (Checking whether the letter had arrived is the reason why I looked in the letter box.)

Does that make sense?

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Team Is it possible to use the past perfect tense with an infinitive? Here is my sentence: The travelers at Faye's guest house had organized a big party that night to continue celebrating the water festival. Thanks for your help, lexeus.

Hello lexeus,

Yes, it's correct to use the infinitive like that in the sentence you ask about. This is called an infinitive of purpose and in principle can be used with any tense.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your help, Kirk. For me, the past perfect tense is one of the most difficult to use correctly, and the grammar guides on the internet only give examples of its use with the simple past tense. Could you tell me if it's possible to use the past perfect with the past continuous? For example: The travelers who were staying at Faye's guest house had organized a big party that night to continue celebrating the water festival. Also, do you know where I can find a definitive guide to using the past perfect tense? Thank you, Best regards, lexeus

Hello again lexeus,

The sentence you ask about is correct -- very well written, in fact.

It looks to me as if you already know how to use the past perfect very well, but if you want to do more, I think the best thing you can do to become more familiar with it is notice how it's used when you encounter it in speaking and writing. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with any other resource that could serve as a 'definitive' guide.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk, Thanks for your reply. I should have said 'exhaustive' instead of 'definitive' guide. The biggest problem I have with the past perfect tense is this: When you use the past perfect tense, do the verbs that follow it take the simple past tense or do you have to continue using the past perfect tense? For example: He had made sure of covering his tracks when he took her out there and showed her the house. (past perfect tense followed by simple past tense) Or does everything have to stay in the past perfect tense? Using the same example: He had made sure of covering his tracks when he had taken her out there and had shown her the house. (all in past perfect tense) I appreciate your help and hope I'm not taking up too much of your time. All the best, lexeus

Hello lexeus,

Yes, no worries -- I understood what you meant! Let me see if I can help you with this particular case.

In many situations, it's not absolutely necessary to use the past perfect. For example, the sentence you mention could be written with 'made sure' instead of 'had made sure'. (By the way, I'd recommend 'sure to cover' instead of 'sure of covering'.)

This means that when someone uses the past perfect, often they want to make it clear that one action in particular took place before others -- and these other actions aren't always described in the same sentence. Usually our background knowledge of a situation or reality in general will make it clear what the sequence of actions is, or other words will make it clear; by using the past perfect, we're drawing the reader or listener's attention to one action in particular.

This of course doesn't apply to all situations. An easy example of when this doesn't apply is when the past perfect is used to speak about an unreal past (e.g. 'If I had studied philosophy, I would have become a writer.') But in many other situations where someone is speaking about several actions or conditions in the past, they use the past perfect to single out one of them which they want to emphasise came before something else.

It's difficult to describe, but I hope that helps you a little. Please don't hesitate to ask again if anything I said wasn't clear.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk, Thanks for your help and advice. You've helped me to look at the past perfect tense in a different way. Is it grammatically incorrect to say 'had made sure of covering' instead of 'had made sure to cover', or is it just a question of style? All the best, lexeus.

Hello lexeus,

I'm glad that helped.

Since the meaning here seems to be that the man covered the tracks on purpose, 'made sure to cover' is correct and 'made sure of covering' is not. When you do something for a purpose, then 'make sure to do' or 'be sure to do' are the forms to use. 'be sure of something/somebody' is a correct phrase, but speaks about confidence, not purpose.

For example, if your brother asked you 'Did you lock the car?' and you were confident that you did, you could respond 'I'm sure of it'. On the other hand, if your brother wanted to emphasise that you should lock the car after you use it tonight, he could say 'Be sure to lock the car'.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk Sorry for posting in past perfect section but I didn’t know where to post else When I met Laura she was wearing a red dress. What’s the difference if we say “ when I was meeting Laura she was wearing a red dress” if this is not correct tense why? Her English is improving every day. What’s the difference if we say “ her English improves every day” Best regards Andi

Hi Tony1980,

The continuous form describes an activity which is ongoing and unfinished at a particular moment, so we commonly use it to show a longer activity which happens around a shorter one. For example:

I was walking in the park when my phone rang.

The phone call is in the middle of (and interrupts) my walk.


In your original example, wearing the red dress is a longer activity and the meeting happens during it. In other words, Laura comes to the meeting already wearing the red dress.

The second version does not seem to fit any context I can think of.


In your second example, is improving emphasises the ongoing current process, while improves suggests something which is generally or permanently true. Since the verb 'improve' implies a process of change there is little difference between the two, but if a different verb were used (one which does not imply change) then the difference would be clearer:

She is enjoying school. [at the moment]

She enjoys school. [generally]



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter M. Thanks for the your elaborated response it was really helpful I came across this sentence: I was teaching Spanish while I was living in Mexico. What’s the difference if we say: 1)I taught Spanish while I lived in Mexico. 2)I taught Spanish while I was living in Mexico. 3)I was teaching Spanish while I lived in Mexico. Sorry if Im being too demanding. Best regards Andi

Hi Andi,

Generally, the continuous form in this kind of context suggests that something is seen as temporary while the simple suggest permanence. However, beyond that I wouldn't comment on the particular examples you provide. The reason is that the choice is dependent on the detailed context and the speaker's perspective. In other words, we would simply be speculating about how the speaker sees the situation and the discussion would devolve into a whole series of maybes: Perhaps he thinks... perhaps he is... and so on.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter M. Thanks again for your response Oh no! I ___ my wallet in the restaurant. I’m struggling between simple past and present perfect. I Think the right answer would be “ have left “ since present perfect indicates the wallet is still in the restaurant. If we used simple past then the sentence would be : I left my wallet in the restaurant this morning. But then went to the restaurant and took it and now I have it with me. Is this reasoning correct or I’m wrong? Best wishes Andi

Hi Andi,

You could use either the present perfect or past simple here. Both make sense.

  • The present perfect implies a present connection (i.e., the wallet is still in the restaurant now and I need to go back and get it, as you said).
  • The past simple means this event ('I left my wallet') happened in the past. It could have been some time ago (e.g., hours ago) or recently (e.g., one minute ago). Adding a time phrase (e.g., 'this morning') is optional. Your example sentence is correct, but we can also use the past simple if you haven't collected the wallet yet. Whether you have collected the wallet yet or not doesn't change the fact that you left it in the restaurant.

I hope that makes sense :)

If you have more present perfect questions, it would be great if you could post them on our present perfect page.


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan R It makes perfect sense to me thanks for the response When I opened the door is was raining. What’s the difference if we say: When I was opening the door it was raining. Does this sentence implies that the focus is on the action of opening the door and somehow the second action will have to not be out of this focus. I mean the correct sentence would be : when I was opening the door the knob came off . The second action the knob coming off is within the focus of my opening the door. Am i Right or I’m missing something?? Best wishes Andi

Hi Andi,

The past continuous shows an action that continued for some time, and it's often used to show a background action (i.e., one that provides a context) for another focal action (i.e., an action in the foreground). In these examples:

  • When I opened the door, it was raining.
  • When I was opening the door, the knob came off.

The focal actions are the past simple actions (underlined). The past continuous actions are a background or context for the past simple actions. 

If you say When I was opening the door it was raining, it's unusual. The choice of the past continuous suggests that these actions both had a meaningful duration and are both a context for another focal action, but the sentence doesn't mention any other action.

It's possible to use the past continuous for two actions to emphasise that they both happened at the same time and both had duration. For example, if I say While I was sleeping, she was working, I emphasise the duration of both actions. (But this meaning doesn't fit the door example because opening a door normally has an insignificant duration, compared to rain falling.)

I hope that helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan R.
Thanks again for your response

We had been travelling / had traveled for over an hour when we realised we were going on the wrong direction.

I know that past perfect continuous is used to express duration and past perfect simple for a result. What I want is you interpreting why both tenses are possible here please. What do both of these tenses suggest in this context??
All the best

Hi Andi,

Both are possible because they both show actions that took place earlier than the second action ('we realised').

The past perfect continuous and simple are respectively used to emphasise, rather than express, duration and the result. (In fact, they both express an action that, logically speaking, had a duration and also some sort of result.) The difference between them is a question of what the speaker wants to emphasise. They aren't mutually exclusive.

If I say 'We had been travelling', I'm emphasising the duration over the result (i.e., I want to draw your attention to the fact that we'd been travelling for a long time). I might say this if I want, for example, to let you know how hard the experience was, or how tired I was - travelling for a long time is an explanation for the tiredness.

If I say 'We had travelled', I'm emphasising the fact that we'd travelled. I might say this if, for example, this is only one part of a longer story containing many other actions.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan R
Thanks again for your long response I really appreciate it and found it really helpful

I 1)swam as fast as I could to where I had seen the man but when I 2)got there he had disappeared completely.

Why past Continuous Is not possible in 1) and 2) If we say I swam to where…. This means that the action is completed and he reached the place where he had seen the man.
If we say I was swimming to where…. This means that he was in the middle of the process of reaching the place where he had seen the man.
So why past Continuous Is not possible??
Best regards

Hi Andi,

I'm glad it was useful! Actually, I think it IS possible to say 'I was swimming ...' in that sentence. I wouldn't say it is grammatically incorrect. However, this seems to be a part of a longer narrative sequence which extends beyond this particular sentence, and it's common for past simple to be used for actions in a narrative (i.e., to present actions one by one, sequentially).

I wouldn't use past continuous for 2) because the past perfect means that 'he had disappeared' took place BEFORE 'I got there'. If it happened in the middle of the process, it would be 'when I was getting there, he disappeared' (past simple, not past perfect).

Does that make sense?

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan
Thanks again for your response

It was a hot day so I decided to prepare salad for lunch.
We can’t say “ I was deciding “ as this tense puts emphasis on the action and it make it looks like the speaker was deciding whether to prepare salad or not that day and that the speaker put a lot of thinking for the process which is not what he wants to convey here.

I heard a loud voice so I ran outside to see what 1)happened /2) was happening .
1) means that the event now had finished and whatever caused the person shout now was over I mean this is what simple past highlights
While 2) means that the action was caught in the middle and that the person was still arguing or fighting someone

Sorry for being too long I just want you to tell me if the above reasonings are correct as I want to test my knowledges.
Best regards