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

Average: 4.2 (94 votes)
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Hi MgKanKaung,

Both sentences are correct! Their meaning is different, though. In 1, I finished school first and then I met him. In 2, I met him first, and then I finished school.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by MgKanKaung on Mon, 20/03/2023 - 08:58


This lesson helps me a lot to understand the past perfect.I really appreciate your lesson.
But, I still confused about something.
I want to ask 2 questions.

A.I looked in the letter box yesterday and the letter still ___.
1.didn't arrive 2.hadn't arrived
B.First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread.
1.made 2. 'd made
For number A, why can't we use "didn't arrive?". I think still is the key point or not in number A?
For number B, why can't we use "had made".
Hoping to explaining me.

Hi MgKanKaung,

For A, logically speaking, we are talking about whether the letter arrived before I looked in the letter box. We need the past perfect to show this. If we use the past simple, it does not clearly show that the letter arriving happened before I looked in the letter box. Instead, it seems to mean that I looked in the letter box first, and then "didn't arrive" happened next, which is not a logical order. The word "still" emphasises the fact that the letter is not here, although the speaker was expecting it for a long time. It's not the key point. The key point is the order of actions.

For B, the reason is that the past perfect is used not simply when one action happens before another, but when the two actions have some kind of connection. One action influences the other in some way. (For example, in sentence A, the connection is that I looked in the letter box because I was expecting to find the letter there.) However, in B, there is no such connection. You may be interested to read Peter's reply to this question (click the link) for more explanation.

I hope that helps to understand it!


LearnEnglish team

Ah lovely explaining!, I got the points clearly .Thank you so much sir,
Really appreciate your teaching.

Submitted by Azlina on Mon, 20/03/2023 - 06:38


Hi there.

Which of these is correct:

1. We had been very playful the whole of last year.
2. We have been very playful the whole of last year.

No. 1 sounds awkward to me but I can't explain it.

Thank you for your feedback.

Hi Azlina,

They are both correctly formed sentences! But which one is correct depends on the rest of the conversation or text that these sentences are a part of. Sentence 1 uses the past perfect (had been), which shows that the action occured before another past action or past time. Sentence 1 does not mention any other past action or time, but the rest of the conversation or text might do (e.g. We had been very playful the whole of last year, until I moved away.) If there is no other past action/time mentioned, there is no reason to use past perfect and sentence 1 would be incorrect.

Sentence 2 uses present perfect (have been very playful), which is correct if this action has some kind of perceived relevance to the current topic of conversation. Otherwise, another option to consider is the past simple: We were very playful ... .

As mentioned above, the choice of verb tense really depends on the relationship between this action and other actions in the rest of the conversation/text! I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Sefika on Sun, 19/02/2023 - 10:58


I had to choose this grammar point (Past perfect), but I have questions about the use of the past continuous/progressive tense in the following sentence: "I was working on a project for six months."
Question 1: Can we rewrite the sentence as "I was working on a six-month project"?
Question 2: Does the sentence have a meaning similar (apart from the aspect (simple vs. cont./progressive)) to "I worked on a project for six months"?
Question 3: Is the sentence another way of saying (depending on the context in which it is used) "I had been working on a project for six months"?

I hope my questions are clear enough. Thank you very much in advance.

Hi Sefika,

1. It may or may not have the same meaning. To be precise, "a six-month project" means that the project lasted exactly six months. If you say "I was working on a project for six months", that only shows the time that you worked on it, not the length of the whole project. So, it's possible that the project was longer than six months.

2. Yes, the sentences are similar in that they both refer to a past action. But the choice of simple vs. continuous is important - that is the main difference in meaning between the sentences.

3. Yes, this sentence also refers generally to a past action. You're right to point out the importance of the context. That will make one form better than the other (e.g. To talk about actions that happened during that project, "I was working ..." is better. To talk about what happened after and as a result of that project, "I had been working ..." is better).

Does that make sense? I hope it helps.


LearnEnglish team

Regarding the first question I asked, what I was trying to say was "It was a six-month project for me". The project may have lasted longer, of course, as you pointed out.