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

 

Language level

Intermediate: B1
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

Dear Kirk, Sorry to bother you with the same questions. But I would like to know for sure. The sentence with a present tense can have a past perfect continuous tense (eg. I do not (present tense) know how long she had been learning (past perfect continuous tense) Spanish). And a sentence with a present tense cannot have a past perfect tense (eg. I do not know (Present tense) how he had done(past perfect) it) Am I right in my understanding? Please explain and enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson,

The past perfect describes an action in the past in relation to another action later in the past. Thus any past perfect form requires a second past time reference point. That could be in the same sentence or it could be in another sentence, or it could be simply understood from the broader context. There is no rule that a past perfect cannot be used with a present verb form. It depends on the context and whether or not there is a second past time reference.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Excellent! You have answered my question. Thank you very much Peter for that. So, I understand that the following sentence is correct, if there is a past time reference in the following sentence (or) the past time reference is broadly understood in the context it is used. Please let me know whether I am correct or not. Sentence: I do not know (Present tense) how he had done(past perfect) it). Please also let me know whether the following example is correct or not. Example sentences: John went (past time reference in the previous/first sentence) to U.S.A few years ago. But I do not know(present tense) how he had completed(past perfect) his Visa process. Thank you, again. Regards, kingson
Dear Sir, Which one of the following is correct? The children are going to school from Monday, last week. The children have been going to school since/from Monday, last week. Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Hello kingson

The second one is correct if you use 'since'. 

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk, Thank you very much for your reply. From your answer I can infer that if I use "from" , then the first sentence can also be correct. Is that right? My understanding is if we use "have been going", it means it is temporary. But in this case, the children are going to school for the rest of their school life, so it cannot be temporary. So my opinion is we cannot use "have been going." Please let me know whether my opinion is right or wrong. Thanks, again. Regards, kingson

Hello kingson

It's true that a continuous verb form can be used to show that an action is temporary, but it's not true that all continuous verb forms mean this. In other words, in the appropriate context, your sentence could be talking about a temporary condition, but in other contexts it could have another one of the meanings on the page I linked to earlier.

I'm afraid that the first sentence in your first comment is not correct. In many languages (such as Spanish), it's correct to use a present continuous verb form to refer to an action that began in the past, but in English, the correct form for this kind of situation is the present perfect continuous.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Wow, that's great, Kirk. I have learnt new things on "continuous form from the link you sent me. Thank you for that. Regards, kingson
Sir, I have using this app and trying to improve my English. Today I drafted a letter by myself. Could you plz check and suggest me where I am wrong. Please help me. Respected Sir, I am x working as a assistant in your company Since May 2015. I am writing this letter to bring in your notice that my salary was deducted twice in the past. Initially, it was deducted for 3 and 1/2 days in the month of December 2014. I had checked my past record and didn't find any correspondence which stated that I actually took enough CL in the year 2015. Secondly, My salary was deducted for 4 days in the month of November 2017. On that year I had taken all my CL and applied for medical leave as I was 2 and a half months pregnant. I have miscarriages history so for me and my child wellbeing I preferred hospital near to my in-law's place as I stayed here alone. I submitted my application according to Y Sir but I didn't get any receiving of that letter. This system of giving receiving on-letter was started recently by Mr Z, personal assistant. So I don't have any valid proof in this regard. When it was done, I questioned Mr x Sir and he said he will sort out the matter but it didn't happen. My current senior official knows about this rue and they are ready for giving their statement on the same. I hope I will get justice because I dedicated my whole potential and energy to this organization for the completion of any last-minute work. I know my seniors never deny how hard I worked here. I am attaching below my pregnancy checked reports. It's my kind request to look into this matter and approve the salary which was deducted in the past. I will be always grateful to you and it will inspire me to work beyond my capacity. Thanks and Regards

Hello Swati,

I'm afraid we don't provide a correction service on LearnEnglish. We're a small team here and we have thousands of users on the site. We're happy to provide explanations of particular language points but it's just not possible for us to correct texts like this.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

In our book(CUTTING EDGE) an example has been written as We had been in Cairo for two months / since august. I think this sentence is incorrect .

Hello Henok17

That sentence can be correct in certain situations. I'd recommend you ask your teacher about it; I expect they can help you understand how that sentence can be correct.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Teacher, Hello. Is the following sentence grammatically correct: "The novelist must have realized that history would ultimately reveal that the queen had actively participated in the rebellion as an ally, not foe." Can Grammatical structures "Must have realized" + "would" + "Past perfect tense" be used in one sentence in the sequence given above? Thanks. Raj
Dear sir, Are these sentences correct? You: "Yes. They were under the cupboard." Indirect: I answered that they had under the cupboard.

Hello Sevi Shinta,

The second sentence is not correct. You need to use a form of the verb be, not only had. In this context, we would not change the tense of the verb, so the correct sentence would be:

I answered that they were under the cupboard.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir, The following sentence has got present perfect and past perfect. Can this (past and present perfects coming together) happen in the same sentence? "He has done it for the first time in almost five years, according to the University documents, following speculation that he had been searching for evidences." Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson

Yes, it is possible -- the verb forms in the sentence you cite have no grammatical errors. 'evidences' is not correct, however: it is an uncount noun.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Teacher, Hello. Is the use of the present perfect tense correct in the following sentences: 1. Tom who had already died in 1940 is presented as the king of Zupata during the famine of the 1920s. This story is anachronistic. 2. Some of them refer to the event as an early ‘war’ for the tribe's independence from the foreign rule since the right to collect tax had been given to the foreign Company after the Battle of Jejury in 1846. Thanks. Raj

Hello Raj,

Your examples use the past perfect, not the present perfect.

The second example looks fine. The first example does not make sense. We use the past perfect to describe actions in the past which happened before another action in the past. In your second example the sequence is reversed: 1940 is after the 1920s, not before.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, I am sorry. It was a typo; I meant 'past perfect tense'. The first sentence is a comment on a historical novel. Does it make any sense in this context? As regards the second sentence, is the sequence important? In other words, does 'which time comes first in a sentence' play a significant role? Thanks. Raj

Hello Raj,

As it is written, the first example does not appear logical. It may be that in context there is another past time reference point, but we cannot see this in the sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear sir, Would you please tell me if the following sentence is correct? by the time he finished giving the lecture, he had made such a lasting impression on me that i vowed to become a teacher like him. Appreciatively, Reza
Dear Sir, Is the following sentence correct? I am glad (simple present) to know how easily the early historians had understood (past perfect) this concept in the third century A.D. I have one more question. "John is our lawyer, who advocated for us and now (is) teaching law courses." Do we need to use the "is" - within brackets - in this sentence? Please help me in this regard, Thank you, kingson

Hello kingson,

Unless there is a second past time reference point in another sentence in the wider context, there is no need to use the past perfect in the first sentence. A past simple is fine:

I am glad to know how easily the early historians understood this concept in the third century A.D.

 

In your second sentence is is required. We would usually put now after it:

John is our lawyer, who advocated for us and is now teaching law courses.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Helo, Could you tell please, what is the meaning of next sentence from the test 2: She didn't feel like another coffee as she ___ one.

'she'd just had one' is a shorter way of saying 'she had just had one'. Here the verb 'have' is used in two different ways. The first 'had' ('she had just had one') is the auxiliary verb 'have' in the past tense, which is the first part of a past perfect verb.

The second 'had' ('she had just had one') is the past participle of the main verb 'have', which here means 'to consume', that is, 'to drink'. I believe that in Italian you would say 'prendere un caffè' for 'have a coffee' here.

Does that make sense?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear British Council Team, could you help me to correct this sentence? After I had shot the ball over the goal, I never saw it again. Or After I had shot the ball over the goal, I have never seen it again. Is both correct? Thank you a lot! Anna

Hello Anna,

The first sentence is correct. I think we'd be more likely to say shot rather than had shot in the first part of the sentence, however, as there is no need to emphasise the connection between the two actions.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, What is the difference between "they published" and "they were published" Thanks

Hello Praveen

'they published' is in the active voice and 'they were published' is in the passive voice. If you follow the link, I think the explanation on that page will clarify this for you, but if you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask us there.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter or Kirk, I am having problems with this sentence: She didn't feel like another coffee as she'd just had one....if you don't want to make it short would you say like this? as she had just had one???

Hello Paula,

Yes, that's right. In that sentence she'd just is a contraction of she had just. It's a past perfect form because the action precedes and is relevant to another action in the past (not wanting another coffee).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir Please let me know whether this sentence is right or wrong. e.g. He was the most extra ordinary man I had ever seen in my life Thank you. Regards Lal

Hello Lal,

The sentence is fine apart from one spelling issue: extraordinary should be one word, not two.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, I just wanted to add a question to your answer. Can we put the sentence in the following way? "He was an extraordinary man that I have ever seen." Thank you, Regards, kingson
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