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 (127 votes)

Submitted by Maya4aa on Sun, 02/04/2023 - 13:00


Hello there. When I was practicing for my test I saw a sentence that I wasn't sure how to solve. I asked a friend for help yet we are still confused. The sentence goes like this: I would have spoken to her If _____ (be) there with you. I answered with had been and he with were there with you. Which would be correct since this is a sentence that reminds me of the third conditional.

Hello Maya4aa,

Both answers are correct. Using 'had been' makes it a third conditional structure and 'were' makes it a mixed conditional. You can see more about this on our Conditionals 2 page.

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Ray_2020 on Thu, 30/03/2023 - 12:17



As I understand, Past perfect indicates a connection between two past (completed) actions in which one of them happened before the other.

According to the definition, how can we explain the function of this tense in the presence of a sentence with a single action (VERB).


She hadn’t shown her stories to anybody.
One more thing. Can you explain the logic behind these two sentences:

1) It is a touching story of adventures they had shared together and how their relationship changed over time.

2) A woman had written stories for years but hadn’t had the courage to submit them.

Hi Ray_2020,

It's a good question. Looking at these sentences, there may not be an apparent reason for using the past perfect. However, sentences are usually part of a larger text or a conversation, and other connected past actions may be referred to somewhere else in the larger text or conversation. In other words, grammatical meanings can cover not just sentences but also paragraphs and longer pieces of text. Since we cannot see the larger text here, we cannot confirm that, but it seems to be the situation here.


LearnEnglish team

Thank you very much for your response.

What about this sentences (With One Action "Verb") that are taken from this article?

It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May.
It was the most beautiful photo I'd ever seen.

How to explain or understand the logic here?

Hi Ray_2020,

The past perfect can show that an action occurred before another past time (e.g. the beginning of May). It doesn't always have to refer to another past action. In sentence 1, "It still hadn't rained" is talking about the time before the beginning of May, which is in the past.

In sentence 2, "I'd ever seen" is talking about the time before "It was the most beautiful photo" (i.e., the time when I saw the photo and noticed that it was beautiful, which the past simple shows is in the past).

I hope that helps to understand it.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by MPhayTp on Mon, 27/03/2023 - 17:06


Hi there,
I visited my friend last week. I(have never seen/had never seen) such a small kitchen. She cooked a meal for me.
Can I use both?

Hi MPhayTp,

They are both grammatically fine! But if you use the present perfect (I have never seen), it means that this is important in the present conversation, so it suggests that you are going to talk more in this conversation about the kitchen and how small it was.

If you use the past perfect (I had never seen), the focus is on the past time (the time of your visit to your friend), so it suggests that you are going to talk more about your visit in general, not just about the kitchen.

I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Sun, 26/03/2023 - 13:27



Could you please help me with the following items

1. If I say, for example, "I went to a dance class one month ago. I had gone to another dance class before." and I want to tell about an earlier past (about another dance class I had gone to before), should I continue using Past Perfect in the further sentences like: "When I had gone to another dance class, I hadn't really liked our trainer. She had been very nervous and she had cried at people. It had seemed to me that I had got her annoyed for some reason. I had wanted just to receive positive emotions after my studies, but I hadn't. That's why I had decided to go to another dance school, which I liked much more."

2. "It was very strange that it was still snowy." Or am I to say "It was very stange that it had been snowy", because it was snowy first and then it seemed strange to me?

I am very very grateful for your important help and thank you very much for clarifying these issues beforehand!!!

Hi howtosay_,

1. You could do, if you want to present all of this information about the earlier dance class as a background context for what you are going to say about the recent dance class. However, I wouldn't suggest doing that. It would be quite grammatically elaborate, and a bit hard to say and understand. Instead, I would use past perfect first of all, to introduce the new topic of the earlier class, and then change to past simple to explain more about it. I had gone to another dance class before. When I went there, I didn't really like our trainer ... That's why I decided to go to another dance school ... This shows that you have changed the focus from "one month ago" to the earlier dance class. It is easier to say and to understand because you are giving quite a lot of information here (5 sentences and a lot of detail). After you explain everything about the earlier dance lesson, you can continue explaining about the "one month ago" dance lesson using past simple.

2. The two sentences have different meanings. In the first one, it is still snowy at the moment of thinking that it was strange. In the second one, it was snowy before that moment, i.e. it was no longer snowy at that moment and you are thinking about a past snowy time (not a present one).

But, you can change the verb to make a sentence that is similar in meaning to the first one: It was very strange that it had snowed. ("to snow" is the action of snow falling on the ground, i.e. it is the start of the state of "being snowy").

I hope that helps!


LearnEnglish team