Past perfect

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? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

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 after before

We can also use before + past perfect 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


Language level

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Submitted by KarenChan0323 on Tue, 18/06/2024 - 13:40


Dear Sir,

1 We arrived before the train had left. In this sentence, 'we arrived' happens first and then 'the train left', while the past perfect means 'the train left' first. Is there a contradiction to the use of the past perfect tense?

2 what's the difference between these two sentences, or do they mean the same?

 We arrived before the train had left.

We arrived before the train left.




Hello Karen,

There is no difference in meaning between the sentences here as 'before' already makes the sequence clear. The past perfect suggests more of a connection between the two events - perhaps they wanted to catch the train or to see someone before they left. The past simple may also mean this or it may simply indicate a simple sequence.



The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Artika22 on Tue, 28/05/2024 - 08:46



Is it correct?

"She had finished her homework, then she went to the park."

Hello Artika22,

If you're describing a sequence of events then past simple is all you need:

She finished her homework, and then she went to the park.

If you want to show a strong connection - one was necessary for the other to be possible, for example - then the past perfect can be used but we would also use a marker such as after, once, as soon as or similar:

After she had finished her homework, she went to the park.

Once she had finished her homework, she went to the park.

As soon as she had finished her homework, she went to the park.



The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Libra23 on Fri, 17/05/2024 - 18:39


Good afternoon, 

I have a doubt about the use of the Past Perfect. 

Can i say: “I had slept before/when you arrived” [probably the sentence sounds better if we add “already”]?

Although, can I say: “I was sleeping before/when you arrive”?

Are the meanings different, correct? 

Because in the first one, the use of the Past Perfect shows that the action [to sleep] was started and ended before the arrival of another person.

Instead, in the second one the use of the Past Continuous shows that the action of sleeping was started in the past, but due to the fact that a person arrived, the first action [to sleep] was interrupted. 

I don’t know if I explain in a correct way my position about that. 

Anyway, thanks a lot.

Best regards

Hello Libra23,

The past perfect can be used like this but we usually use 'when' rather than 'before' because the past perfect already indicates that it was earlier. 'When' indicates the time it was before

I had already made dinner when you arrived. [dinner was before]

I had already slept when you arrived. [sleeping was before]

However, remember that we use the past perfect when there is a connection between the two events, not just to show the sequence or time relationship between them. Is there a reason why you would say that you had slept like this? You would probably need a situation where the person arriving asks if you need to sleep, which would be possible but would be a slightly strange thing to do if they have just arrived.


As you say, 'was sleeping' changes the meaning to an interrupted activity. Again, 'when' is more likely if the action was in progress at the time.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your reply Peter! 

Now, I believe I understood.

So, it’s important focusing on the connection between past events: if two past events are connected for some reason, I have to use the Past Perfect + Past Simple [e.g. “I had already made lunch when you arrived” (there’s a connection because I would have made dinner with you, but it’s didn’t happen)]; instead, if there isn’t a connection but only a time sequence, I have to use the Past Continuous + Past Simple [e.g. “I was reading a book, when you knocked my door” (no connection because I wasn’t waiting you)].

Is it correct? 

Hello Libra23,

Yes, that's right. The past perfect shows a connection between a past event and an earlier past event. The present perfect is similar: it shows a connection between a present event and a past event.

The past continuous does not tell us by itself about this kind of connection, though that doesn't mean the two events are unconnected. Rather the past continuous shows a connection in time: one event happening while another is in progress.



The LearnEnglish Team