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

Hello _princess_,

Both are possible. The choice of which to use depends upon the context and the speaker's intention.

When we want to show a straightforward sequence of events we use the past simple, as in your first example. When it is important for some reason to emphasise that one action came before another, or when the later event is in some way dependent on or changed by the earlier event, we can use the past perfect with a past simple, as in your second example.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you. Could you help me with one more sentence? Which variant is correct? He practised his grammar for 2 hours yesterday. Or He had been practising his grammar for 2 hours yesterday. Past Simple or Past Perfect Continous Thanks for your help.

Hello _princess_

As with the other sentences you asked about, it really depends on the context. Without any context or statement after it (e.g. 'He'd been practising grammar for two hours when his teacher told him he needed to study vocabulary'), the second one would be quite strange. The the first one, on the other hand, could make sense in many different situations.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir, "If you would only give us more proof, we would believe" Is the word "would" (in both places) a modal verb or is it a past tense of "will"? And............ Can we use would on both part of this sentence ("if" clause and the following clause)? Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Hello kingson,

Normally, we do not use modal verbs in both halves of a conditional sentence, but it is possible when we want to make the condition more tentative. In this case, the sense of 'If you would only give us...' is 'If you were willing to give us...

You can see this used sometimes to add politeness:

If you will come this way, sir I'll see you to your seat. (= If you don't mind coming...)

 

'Would' is the past form (used to show an unreal or unlikely action or event) of 'will', but that does not mean it is not a modal verb. In this case, it is both.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Please enlighten me in the construction of the following setences. "If elected, I will stand for justice" "if elected, I would stand for justice" Which is right ? and Why? In the first sentence - is "will" an ancillary verb? or a modal ? or both? In the second sentence - is "would" an ancillary verb? or a modal ? or both? Which sentence implies more politeness? Please enlighten me in this regard. Regards, Thank you, kingson

Hello kingson,

Both sentences are possible. The verb form in the first clause is passive and the auxiliary verb is omitted, which means we do not know if it is a present simple passive or a past simple passive. That is why both will and would are possible:

If I am elected, I will stand for justice.

If I were elected, I would stand for justice.

The first sentences describes a likely or plausible condition and its result. The second sentence describes a condition which the speaker sees as unlikely or impossible.

Both will and would are modal verbs.

The difference between the sentences is one of plausibility or likelihood, not politeness.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, You have given me an exemplary answer. I have another question to ask you. Why the "will" can not be an ancillary verb in the first sentence? I think it comes under an "indicative mood". So under this circumstance can I call it (will) as an ancillary verb? And Would you be able to give me an example of one or two sentences which can have "will" and "would" as both verbs(ancillary and modal), please? I am being so annoyance to you by aksing too many questions. But my intention is to learn English clearly. Thank you for your help. Regards, kingson

Hello kingson,

Modal verbs are one kind of auxiliary verb, which is what I think you mean by 'ancilliary verb'. You can see a list of auxiliary verbs in English here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_verb#List_of_auxiliaries_in_English

 

You can read about the three moods in English (indicative, subjunctive and imperative), as well about how modal verbs relate to the topic, here:

https://grammarianism.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/mood-and-modality-what-is-the-difference/

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Thank you for answering me. Your answer and the links you provided me, took me to a completely different world of English grammar. Thanks again. I am still learning. Regards, kingson
Dear Sir, Which is right to say? Once you had it, then you would start using it. or Once you had it, then you will start using it. Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Hello kingson

The second one is not correct. The first is correct, but a little strange -- I would say 'if' instead of 'once'. With 'once', I would want to say 'Once you have it, you will start using it'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir, Which one of the following is correct? Please remember "We said yesterday that we have to do cooking this afternoon, today". or Please remember "We said yesterday that we had to do cooking this afternoon, today". Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson

You might hear the first, but the second one is better.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

dear sir , I'm very confused So, I would like to explain the difference between the past perfect and past simple in this example : James had cooked breakfast when we got up. James cooked breakfast when we got up. why in 1st sentence do we use past perfect and in 2nd only past simple ? Is it depend on the order of actions only ?

Hello Manar Ragheb,

There is a difference in meaning:

In the first sentence (had cooked) the cooking is finished before you got up.

In the second sentence (cooked) the cooking began when you got up.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir, Please let me know what is the difference between the following sentences. What people say of me? What people say about me? And what is the meaning of "of" in the following sentence? Forgive us of our sins. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson,

I would recommend you use 'about', which is the most commonly used preposition in cases such as these. 'of' is not incorrect, it's just a bit archaic and would make you sound strange in most contexts.

By the way, both of the questions are incorrect in standard British (or American) English: questions in the present simple use the auxiliary verb 'do': 'What do people say about me?'.

'Forgive us of our sins' is another archaic form; it means the same thing as 'forgive us our sins' and is part of a passage from the Christian Bible that is commonly known as the Lord's Prayer.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Dear Sir, What is the difference between the following three phrases? "Call to me" "Call unto me" "Call me" Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson

If you haven't already, the first thing I'd recommend is that you carefully study example sentences in the dictionary. As you can see there, this verb has quite a few different meanings. 'Call me', by the far the most common of the three you ask about, can therefore mean quite a few different things which you can see perfectly well in the dictionary.

It's difficult for me to imagine all possible situations in which one might say 'Call to me', but in general I'd say it is a way of giving instructions to someone to get my attention at some point in time.

'Call unto me' is not really used outside of very specific contexts any more. You might find it in a passage from an older translation of the Bible, for example, but it would be quite unusual to hear or read it in most places nowadays.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir, I have asked few questions on the following sentence and got excellent answers from you. But I still have a question on the same sentence. " My friend got married (past time reference) to a girl who had been working here in this office".(The girl is currently working in the same office) If I use past perfect (had been working), it works well with time reference(past tense- got married). But it ignores that the girl still works in the same office. So please let me know which way I can form this sentence better. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello Kingson,

If the girl works in the office now then a present simple is the most obvious choice:

My friend got married to a girl who works here in this office.

Of course, this does not tell us that the girl worked in the office when your friend got married, though that would be the most likely way to understand the sentence. If you needed to make it explicit, then you would need to add the information separately:

My friend got married to a girl who worked here in this office. She still works here.

My friend got married to a girl from this office. She still works here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Thank you very much for your service. It's really throwing light on some darker areas. Have a happy New year. Regards, kingson
Dear Sir, "Since you were honest to me, I have chosen you as my secretary". Here, there is a past tense and a present perfect in a sentence. Is the sentence correct with these two tenses together? Does the past tense plays an adverbial function here in this sentence? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello Kingson,

The sentence is perfectly correct. It describes an action in the near past which has a present result (choosing) and provides a completed past action (being honest) which provided the motivation for this action.

The sentence has two clauses which are joined by a subordinating conjunction (since). The conjunction expresses a causal relatioship in a similar way to 'because'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, That's an excellent answer. Thank you so much for that. Please find the following sentences. I thought (past tense)you did not work(past tense) here. (But the person is currently working here) I thought (past tense)you do not work (present tense)here. (But the person is currently working here) Which is right ? and why? In the similar way please find the following sentences. I thought you have resigned the job (but the person is still in the same job) I thought you had resigned the job (but the person is still in the same job) Is the clause "I thought" is a near past tense to the rest of the sentence? I know my question is bit vague but I believe your answer will throw light on what I want to achieve. Thank you, Regards, kingson
Dear Teacher, This is about articles and making a generalization ( in this case "bank"). I would like to know if there is any difference in the meaning of the following sentences or if they have the same meaning. Could you also tell me which one is more appropriate? 1. People go to a bank to deposit money 2. People go to banks to deposit money Thank you.

Hello Donald Harrison,

Both sentences are possible; which is appropriate depends upon what you want to say. 

The distinctions between indefinite, definite and zero article for generic meaning are very subtle. I wrote a long answer a while ago describing them.  You can find that answer here:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/comment/140263#comment-140263

 

I think if you read that explanation you should be able to see the difference between your two sentences.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter, Thank you for the reply. I found the explanation given in the link very useful. Thanks again for all what you do in this forum to help learners. All the best Donald
Dear Sir, Can we use the following question when a particular work has not been finished(present perfect) yet. "I thought(It's only my thinking in the past and realizes in the present that the work has not been finished) he had finished the work(past perfect)". Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson

'I thought he had finished the work' is grammatically correct. With this sentence, you are expressing your own thinking about the work being finished -- it is irrelevant whether the work is actually finished or not.

Does that answer your question? If not, could you please rephrase it, as I'm not sure I've understood it completely.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Team, Once we have established that we are using the past perfect tense, would it be grammatically correct, to avoid being repetitive, to follow it with the past simple tense, even though we are still talking about the same incident? for example: Tom recalled how Sally had told him of the excitement she felt when she visited the zoo and saw the animals. or does everything have to remain in the past perfect tense? Tom recalled how Sally had told him of the excitement she had felt when she had visited the zoo and had seen the animals. Thanks for your help, Lexeus

Hello Lexeus,

The first sentence is fine. There is no need to express everything in the past perfect, and it makes the sentence very clunky.

The past perfect in your example only expresses one relationship: looking back on the act of telling from the perspective of the moment of recall. The rest is not directly linked. In other words, Tom recalls the telling, not the feeling, the visiting or the seeing.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

The exercises are perfect and useful but if it exists more exercise should be better for me...
PLEASE, change the example with the cat because it's very offensive. Who can put a cat in a washing machine? It's CRUELTY and I am sure it's a very painful and awful death, murder by the way. Something like that doesn't happen unintentionally. This kind of example is very bad and here is a website for education and not for learn types of kill someone. I am sorry about my message but I had studied here when I just read this and it's shocked me.

Hello govegan

We are currently revising the Intermediate grammar section and this page will be changing quite soon. It's difficult to speculate on the intentions of the people involved and although it's more likely than not that washing the cat was unintentional, I agree that the sentence shows poor taste and so I have changed it. Thanks very much for pointing it out to us and I'm sorry about that.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Sir, Which is right? The medium of instruction was (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. (If we use "was" - will that deny the current reality?) Or The The medium of instruction is (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingson

The first one is correct since the 'when' clause makes it clear that the sentence is only about the past. I would recommend taking out the comma, though.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I am, again, a little bit confused about the use of the past tenses in this example: "The film started before Thomas had arrived" If "start" is the acction that happens first and "arrived" is the acction that happens later, why not saying: "The film had started before Thomas arrived" because he arrived late and the film had already started. Thank yoy in advance.

Hello mara,

This is a similar example to the earlier one you posted. As I said in that answer, we sometimes use the past perfect for actions which are not completed.

For example:

The film had started before Thomas arrived.

In this sentence the sequence of the actions is clear: first the film started and then Thomas arrived. Both actions happened.

 

However, if we want to talk about something which did not happen, or which was not complete, then we use the past perfect with before:

The film started before Thomas had arrived.

Here we understand that one action (Thomas arriving) did not happen, or was not complete.

 

It may help to think about this as a structure related to what is sometimes called the third conditional. The past perfect is describing something which is not real, or not complete, just as in a past hypothetical conditional sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter. I have now a clear idea about these uses of the past perfect. The connection with the third conditional is really illustrative and helpful. Thanks a lot
Dear Sir, Which is right to say? Have you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young? Or Had you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

Neither is correct. The phrase 'when you were young' tells us that the person is not young now, so the question is about a finished time period. The past simple is the best option:

Were you ever lifted up... when you were young?

The present perfect would be used if we were asking about the person's whole life, not just 'when you were young'.

We have no context for the sentence and no other time point for reference so there is no reason to use a past perfect.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I would like to get some explanation about why the past perfect tense is properly used in this sentence after "before": "I left the dinner table before everybody had finished eating" I have always been taught that when in combination with the past simple, the action that takes place first is expressed in past perfect and the second one in past simple. In the sentence above is quite the opposite. Thank you!

Hello mara,

We can use the past perfect after 'before' when the action started before a certain time in the past, but was not completed.

In your example, the action of eating began before the person left the table. The use of the verb 'finish' is a little confusing, but in the context of eating we think of 'finishing a meal' as a process, not as a single momentary action.

 

Here is another example:

The guests arrived before I had finished preparing dinner.

My preparation began before they arrived, but was not finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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