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

Soumis par mara le mer 25/09/2019 - 18:30

Permalien
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.

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 26/09/2019 - 08:01

En réponse à par mara

Permalien

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

Soumis par Giudg1 le mar 24/09/2019 - 20:51

Permalien
Is "she had done the dishes before I got home" right? Would be glad if someone answered

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le lun 23/09/2019 - 13:08

Permalien
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

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 24/09/2019 - 07:31

En réponse à par kingsonselvaraj

Permalien

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

Thank you so much. I am becoming more confident in my English grammar, because of your help. Regards, kingson

Soumis par mara le sam 21/09/2019 - 18:35

Permalien
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

Soumis par Dmevko le sam 21/09/2019 - 16:16

Permalien
Hello everyone! I'm a little bit confused with the example 'James cooked breakfast when we got up'. If we got up before James coocked breakfast, don't we have to say 'James cooked breakfast when we had gotten up'? Thank in advance.

Hello Dmevko,

The past simple is used for sequential actions, so it is fine to say he did this after we did that.

The past perfect makes clear a connection between two actions in the past. We use the past perfect, for example, when one action is the result of another, or is changed or influenced by another. The past perfect would not be wrong in your example, but there would need to be a reason to emphasise the relationship between the two actions beyond simple chronological sequence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your answer. I have one question about present perfect and present perfect continuous tenses. Unfortunately I can't leave comments in those topics. Could you explain to me here? In the topic about present perfect (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/intermediate-grammar/present-perfect) there is an explonation "2 We also use the present perfect to talk about things that are unfinished – unfinished states and unfinished time periods.". At the same time the topic about present perfect and presen perfect continuous (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/intermediate-grammar/present-perfect-simple-and-continuous) has another explonation "The present perfect simple (I’ve read) gives the idea of completion while the present perfect continuous (I’ve been reading) suggests that something is unfinished.". How to understand this? Which from these two explonations is correct? Do I have to use present perfect to say about unfinished activity in some situations and what these situations are?

Hello Dmevko,

The present perfect describes actions occuring within an unfinished time period, but the action itself may be finished. For example, I use the present perfect in this sentence because the day has not ended yet:

I've read three short stories.

Here, I've finished the book and there is a result (I can tell you about it) but the time period (today) has not finished.

 

I use the present perfect continuous if I want to suggest that the action itself is not finished. For example:

I've been reading this book all morning. It's fascinating!

Here, the book hasn't been finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hell Elysium,

We use the past perfect to refer to a time before another time in the past when there is some connection between the two (cause, influence etc). In other words, the past perfect does not exist in isolation, but always references another action or state, whether explicitly stated or implicit.

In your example it is hard to say why the author used the past perfect because we do not see the whole context in which the sentence is used. This means that we do not know what the connection is between being part of the seminar and another, later, action. It could be that Susan Calvin had been part of... and so was well prepared to do something else, but we cannot see this from the sentence in isolation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le mar 03/09/2019 - 08:04

Permalien
Dear Sir, Is the following sentance correct? I have seen (past happening but current experience) the two headed snakes, when (referring to a past time) I visited (past tense) Vietnam. Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 04/09/2019 - 07:15

En réponse à par kingsonselvaraj

Permalien

Hello Kingson,

The sentence is not correct, I'm afraid. We do not use the present perfect (have seen) with a finished past time reference (when I visited). You need two past simple tenses here:

I saw the two headed snakes, when I visited Vietnam.

 

We would use the present perfect if the time reference is unfinished. For example, you could refer to your whole life up to now:

I have seen the two headed snakes in Vietnam.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much Peter for your time and response. Can we say "I have seen two-headed snakes before(unfinished time reference, but in the past with a present experience), when I visited Vietnam"? Thank you, Regards, kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

The problem with the sentence is that the phrase 'when I visited Vietnam' provides a finished time reference and so it cannot be used with the present perfect. The present perfect refers to an unfinished time, not a finished time. If you are no longer in Vietnam then that time period is complete and is not consistent with the present perfect.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very, very much Peter for your patience in answering my question. The reason why I am making a doubt around the combination of Past tense and present perfect is, I was told that the following sentence is gramatically correct. "My friend got married to the girl who has been working here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office). In this above sentence "got married" is the past tense. But "has been working" is the present perfect(continuous). Please enlighten me in this regard. Please pardon me, if I give you too much trouble. I am a public speaker that's why I am trying to be crystal clear in my English grammar. Thank you again, Peter. Regards, kingson

Hello kingsonselvaraj,

The sentence 'My friend got married to the girl who has been working here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office' is fine, because the present perfect phrase does not provide a time reference for the past simple action, but simply provides more information about the girl.

 

As an aside, I would say that the sentence is a little odd and the present perfect does not seem to add any information. A more natural way to phrase it would be to use the present simple (permanent work) or continuous (temporary): 'My friend got married to the girl is working/works here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office.'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Peter. That is really an eye opening fo me. Have you finished (present perfect) reading the book that I gave(past tense) you? - in this sentence, "I gave you" - is this providing more information about the book? Please clarify my doubt. I will be so grateful to you. I appreciate your service. Thank you, again. Regards, kingson

Hello Kingston,

That is correct. Well done!

The past tense gives us information about the book. Grammtically speaking, it is a restrictive or defining relative clause and has an adverbial function. It does not provide a time reference for the verb in the main clause.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much Peter. I really appreciate your patience and service. I am so indebted to you. Please enlighten me in the following. He has questioned her appointment after she broke (past tense) the rules. Could you please tell me what the past tense means here. Has it got any adverbial function or any time reference? Come and tell me after you have seen (Present perfect) her. What is the function of present perfect, here? "Are you the one, who was going to come or do we need to expect another"? Is "who was going to come" an adverbial function? I your previous post you combined the past tense with the present tense. Please see below. My friend got married to the girl is working/works here in this office"(the girl is still working in the same office). Has the later part "the girl is working or works here in this office" got an adverbial function? It has not got "who"(girl who is working or who works) in it. Is it still correct without the word "who"?

Soumis par Kirk le lun 05/08/2019 - 15:25

En réponse à par corflz

Permalien

Hello corflz

Both forms are possible, but the past simple form is probably better in more contexts than the past continuous form.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le sam 03/08/2019 - 10:45

Permalien
Dear Sir, Can I say "My friend got married to a girl who had already been working here in this office" (If the girl is still working the same office currently) Regards kingson

Soumis par Kirk le dim 04/08/2019 - 21:47

En réponse à par kingsonselvaraj

Permalien

Hello kingson

It would be strange to say it that way; 'was working' would be the best form for most situations.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le sam 03/08/2019 - 10:44

Permalien
Why a simple present tense in the direct speech, becomes a past tense in the indirect speech (eg. Direct - He said to me "She goes to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she went to shop) Whereas the past tense in direct speech becomes past perfect in the indirect speech? (eg. Direct - He said to me "She went to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she had gone to the shop) Is there any difference between these two indirect sentences or do they vary in their meaning? Regards, kingson

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le sam 03/08/2019 - 10:42

Permalien
What is the difference between "Are you the one, who was going to come or do we need to expect another" or "Are you the one, who has been going to come or do we need to expect another"?

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le ven 02/08/2019 - 13:23

Permalien
What is the difference between "Are you the one, who was going to come or do we need to expect another" or "Are you the one, who have been going to come or do we need to expect another"?

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le ven 02/08/2019 - 04:52

Permalien
Why a simple present tense in the direct speech, becomes a past tense in the indirect speech (eg. Direct - He said to me "She goes to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she went to shop) Whereas the past tense in direct speech becomes past perfect in the indirect speech? (eg. Direct - He said to me "She went to the shop." Indirect - He told me that she had gone to the shop) Is there any difference? Regards, kingson

Soumis par kingsonselvaraj le ven 02/08/2019 - 04:46

Permalien
Dear Peter, Can I say "My friend got married married to a girl who had already been working here" (If the girl is still working the office currently) Regards kingson

Soumis par Englishlearner123 le mar 23/07/2019 - 19:58

Permalien
Hello Kirk. Thank you the explanation was extremely clear. But I am confused a little about the next statement: I am wondering why the past perfect continuous is used here instead of the past continuous. "-I knew a man who tried to cheat in an exam by writing all the answers on the sole of his shoes. -Did he pass? -No. It had been raining, so the ink had washed off. " Is it possible to use both perfect and perfect continuous tenses here and why? Sorry for disturbing you. Thanks in advance

Hello Englishlearner123

Yes, that sentence is perfectly natural and correct. In this case, the continuous form is describing the background situation (which is a common usage of the continuous aspect) and the simple form is clarifying the relative sequence of events.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Aniyanmon le lun 01/07/2019 - 20:14

Permalien
Dear Sir, I have seen the following question and answer in a spoken English book. Kindly tell me whether the answer of the question is correct. As far as I know "should have" is used as an advice. For example "You should have gone there". It is used in past situations. But in the following answer "should have" is used in a future situation. How is it possible sir?. So can I say now "today evening I should have left this place" (suppose now the time is 10 'o clock in the morning). Que:Will you have passed tenth class examination by the next year? Ans:Yes, I should have passed it by that time. Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

We're happy to help you, but please remember two important things: 1) we ask that you try to ask your question on a relevant page and 2) we don't promise to explain grammar from other sources.

It's easy to find a page on modal verbs or modals with 'have', for example.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Coffin Dodger le lun 01/07/2019 - 17:21

Permalien
Hello, I'm ever sorry to bother, but I got confused a little. Let's Imagine that yesterday I went to a club and I'm telling my buddie a story. A) " Listen, from the momemt I had entered, she had not taken her eyes off of me. But then, suddenly, she got up and approached me. " B) " From the moment I had moved to London, I hadn't had a friend. I was alone then. "

Hello Coffin Dodger

You can use the past perfect like that. People often use the past simple instead of the past perfect when that is possible. That is the case here, i.e. you could use the past simple in place of the past perfect in all of those verbs.

If you had a different questions, please let us know.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Garry301 le ven 28/06/2019 - 18:31

Permalien
My query is this Sir, I have come across this only sentence, 'It was the first time they had met/ met.' which tense to use, had met or met, only?

Soumis par Aniyanmon le ven 28/06/2019 - 16:31

Permalien
Dear Sir, I would like to know which of the following sentences is grammattically correct. Can we use "since" in simple past tense as in the first sentence. Enlighten me on this. 1.He wanted to be an actor ever since he was a teenager. 2.He has wanted to be an actor ever since he was a teenager. Thank you.

Hello again Aniyanmon

Does he still want to be an actor now, i.e. at the time you say this sentence? If so, only 2 is correct.

I'd suggest avoiding the past simple in the main clause of a sentence that has a 'since' clause, as it's usually not correct. If you were speaking about a person who no longer wants to be an actor, but did want to be one at one point in his life, then I'd suggest something like 'He wanted to be an actor from his teenage years until he finished university' (for example).

You might be interested in reading through the 'Since' page in the Cambridge Dictionary's Grammar section.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Aniyanmon le jeu 27/06/2019 - 17:59

Permalien
Dear Sir, I would like to ask one question to you. "I have been ill for some time now". Does it mean that "I have not been ill for some days now". My doubt is whether "some time" and "some days" have the same meaning. Enlighten me on this. Thank you.

Hello Aniyanmon

'some time' is quite a vague expression -- it could mean for a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even longer. The context, including the person who says it, would in theory help you understand how long.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Zhao le jeu 27/06/2019 - 06:25

Permalien
Dear Sir May i ask you to correct if i am wrong. From my opinion, the "perfect" tense essentially would deliver the meaning of unfinished state, or in a certain unfinished period. Based on different context, can I express as followings Case 1: Context: I used to enjoy apple, but gradually did not like it after some years(not certain), so eventually, i do not like it now. Express: I ate apples, which i had enjoyed since i was a child, and vegetables from my garden. Case 2 Context: Apple is my favorite fruit always. Express: 1. I ate apples, which I have enjoyed since I was a child, and vegetables from my garden. Or even use the simple present tense to express "Apple is my favorite food" as a habit 2. I ate apples, which I enjoy since i was a child, and vegetables from my garden. Thx in advanced for your comment

Hello Zhao

I'd suggest you take a look at our Perfect aspect page, where the meaning of the perfect aspect in general is explained and there are detailed explanations of both the present perfect and past perfect.

Your first two sentences are grammatically correct, but in the third one it's not correct to say 'enjoy' (in the present simple tense) with the time expression 'since'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Online courses
Learn English online – with the world's English experts