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.

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

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Average: 4.3 (13 votes)

Hello LitteBlueGreat,

It's possible to use the past perfect with 'before' to show completed actions. However, the actions should be relevant in some way to the later action or state.

For example:
~ I had spoken to John several times before we started the meeting.
Here, each action of speaking is completed. We understand, however, that they are relevant to the later action (starting the meeting). Perhaps the earlier conversations gave the speaker some useful information, or perhaps they helped the speaker build a relationship which would be useful during the meeting.

When the earlier action is not relevant we use a past simple form, and in your example this is the best option, I think. You are describing a sequence of events, not two related events:
~ I studied / finished studying before I went to the park.
Of course, the context may make the actions relevant, but we don't have any context here so we cannot judge.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for helpful explanation Sir.. I have several more questions and hope you could help me

Does The past perfect focus on activity without including experience that somebody keeps up to present?

Like : I have been to London (despite the action was done a long time ago but that past fact of travelling still remains in one's mind up to now)

I had been to London (If I focus on his experience Shouldn't it use present perfect, sir?.

Since a first time I have always thought that fact is maybe true before the speaker got amnesia/brainwashed but after their memory is back now, to me, it looks strange to use Past perfect on first speaker talk about their memories except that sentece above has come from 2nd speaker..

Could you give me other deeper explanations sir?

Hello again LittleBlueGreat,

Perfect forms are retrospective, which means they are forms which look back from one point in time to another earlier time. We use them because the earlier action/state has an influence in some way on the later time. In other words:
> the present perfect is used when a past event is relevant in some way to the present
> the past perfect is used when a past event is relevant in some way to a later past
> perfect modals, such as will have, can be used to show a future event which is relevant in some way to a later future event

Present perfect does not require a second action or time reference as it is already understood to be 'the present' - i.e. now:
~ I've been to Dublin.
[a past event which is relevant to now because it means I have a memory of Dublin, can give advice etc]

However, the past perfect requires a second time reference, either in the sentence or in the context:
~ I had been to Dublin before so I knew all the best places to go.
This is why perfect forms need to be looked at in context rather than in isolation. To analyse "I had been to London" we'd need to know the context in which it is said and to which later past it is referring.

The key point is not memory per se, but relevance: whether or not the first (earlier) action influences or changes in some way the later action or state.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Peter Piper on Fri, 15/10/2021 - 07:43

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Hello everyone,
I can't understand why in Grammar Test 2 (Grammar B1-B2 Past Perfect 2) in the sentence number 3. "First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread." the correct answer is MADE instead of HAD MADE. That because - from my point of view - I had first made the salad (earlier action) and after that I toasted the bread (second latest action). Again - from my point of wiev - this could be the basic example for "Past perfect for the earlier of two past actions" from the lesson. I'm sure that somewhere I didn't catch the point...
Thank you so much for your answer

Hi Peter Piper,

Good question! It's because these two actions are independent of each other, so we understand them simply as two actions in a sequence (i.e., one thing happened, then another thing happened). In this case, it's normal to use the past simple for both, mention them in the same order that they occurred, and use words such as 'first' and 'then' to make the order of actions clear.

Normally, the past perfect is used when there is some kind of cause/effect or other logical relationship between the past perfect event and the past simple event. For example:

-- When the police arrived, the thief had escaped. (The thief escaped in order to avoid being caught by the police.)
-- She looked really sad but I didn't know what had happened. (The thing that had happened is the cause of her looking sad.)
-- I looked in the letter box yesterday and the letter still hadn't arrived. (Checking whether the letter had arrived is the reason why I looked in the letter box.)

Does that make sense?

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lexeus on Mon, 20/09/2021 - 07:59

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Hi Team Is it possible to use the past perfect tense with an infinitive? Here is my sentence: The travelers at Faye's guest house had organized a big party that night to continue celebrating the water festival. Thanks for your help, lexeus.
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Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 20/09/2021 - 10:41

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello lexeus,

Yes, it's correct to use the infinitive like that in the sentence you ask about. This is called an infinitive of purpose and in principle can be used with any tense.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your help, Kirk. For me, the past perfect tense is one of the most difficult to use correctly, and the grammar guides on the internet only give examples of its use with the simple past tense. Could you tell me if it's possible to use the past perfect with the past continuous? For example: The travelers who were staying at Faye's guest house had organized a big party that night to continue celebrating the water festival. Also, do you know where I can find a definitive guide to using the past perfect tense? Thank you, Best regards, lexeus

Hello again lexeus,

The sentence you ask about is correct -- very well written, in fact.

It looks to me as if you already know how to use the past perfect very well, but if you want to do more, I think the best thing you can do to become more familiar with it is notice how it's used when you encounter it in speaking and writing. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with any other resource that could serve as a 'definitive' guide.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team