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)
Hi Kirk, Thanks for your reply. I should have said 'exhaustive' instead of 'definitive' guide. The biggest problem I have with the past perfect tense is this: When you use the past perfect tense, do the verbs that follow it take the simple past tense or do you have to continue using the past perfect tense? For example: He had made sure of covering his tracks when he took her out there and showed her the house. (past perfect tense followed by simple past tense) Or does everything have to stay in the past perfect tense? Using the same example: He had made sure of covering his tracks when he had taken her out there and had shown her the house. (all in past perfect tense) I appreciate your help and hope I'm not taking up too much of your time. All the best, lexeus
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Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 21/09/2021 - 15:50

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello lexeus,

Yes, no worries -- I understood what you meant! Let me see if I can help you with this particular case.

In many situations, it's not absolutely necessary to use the past perfect. For example, the sentence you mention could be written with 'made sure' instead of 'had made sure'. (By the way, I'd recommend 'sure to cover' instead of 'sure of covering'.)

This means that when someone uses the past perfect, often they want to make it clear that one action in particular took place before others -- and these other actions aren't always described in the same sentence. Usually our background knowledge of a situation or reality in general will make it clear what the sequence of actions is, or other words will make it clear; by using the past perfect, we're drawing the reader or listener's attention to one action in particular.

This of course doesn't apply to all situations. An easy example of when this doesn't apply is when the past perfect is used to speak about an unreal past (e.g. 'If I had studied philosophy, I would have become a writer.') But in many other situations where someone is speaking about several actions or conditions in the past, they use the past perfect to single out one of them which they want to emphasise came before something else.

It's difficult to describe, but I hope that helps you a little. Please don't hesitate to ask again if anything I said wasn't clear.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk, Thanks for your help and advice. You've helped me to look at the past perfect tense in a different way. Is it grammatically incorrect to say 'had made sure of covering' instead of 'had made sure to cover', or is it just a question of style? All the best, lexeus.
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Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 23/09/2021 - 07:44

In reply to by lexeus

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Hello lexeus,

I'm glad that helped.

Since the meaning here seems to be that the man covered the tracks on purpose, 'made sure to cover' is correct and 'made sure of covering' is not. When you do something for a purpose, then 'make sure to do' or 'be sure to do' are the forms to use. 'be sure of something/somebody' is a correct phrase, but speaks about confidence, not purpose.

For example, if your brother asked you 'Did you lock the car?' and you were confident that you did, you could respond 'I'm sure of it'. On the other hand, if your brother wanted to emphasise that you should lock the car after you use it tonight, he could say 'Be sure to lock the car'.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Thu, 16/09/2021 - 12:56

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Hi Kirk Sorry for posting in past perfect section but I didn’t know where to post else When I met Laura she was wearing a red dress. What’s the difference if we say “ when I was meeting Laura she was wearing a red dress” if this is not correct tense why? Her English is improving every day. What’s the difference if we say “ her English improves every day” Best regards Andi
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 18/09/2021 - 08:04

In reply to by Tony1980

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Hi Tony1980,

The continuous form describes an activity which is ongoing and unfinished at a particular moment, so we commonly use it to show a longer activity which happens around a shorter one. For example:

I was walking in the park when my phone rang.

The phone call is in the middle of (and interrupts) my walk.

 

In your original example, wearing the red dress is a longer activity and the meeting happens during it. In other words, Laura comes to the meeting already wearing the red dress.

The second version does not seem to fit any context I can think of.

 

In your second example, is improving emphasises the ongoing current process, while improves suggests something which is generally or permanently true. Since the verb 'improve' implies a process of change there is little difference between the two, but if a different verb were used (one which does not imply change) then the difference would be clearer:

She is enjoying school. [at the moment]

She enjoys school. [generally]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter M. Thanks for the your elaborated response it was really helpful I came across this sentence: I was teaching Spanish while I was living in Mexico. What’s the difference if we say: 1)I taught Spanish while I lived in Mexico. 2)I taught Spanish while I was living in Mexico. 3)I was teaching Spanish while I lived in Mexico. Sorry if Im being too demanding. Best regards Andi

Hi Andi,

Generally, the continuous form in this kind of context suggests that something is seen as temporary while the simple suggest permanence. However, beyond that I wouldn't comment on the particular examples you provide. The reason is that the choice is dependent on the detailed context and the speaker's perspective. In other words, we would simply be speculating about how the speaker sees the situation and the discussion would devolve into a whole series of maybes: Perhaps he thinks... perhaps he is... and so on.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony1980 on Sun, 19/09/2021 - 12:14

In reply to by Peter M.

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Hi Peter M. Thanks again for your response Oh no! I ___ my wallet in the restaurant. I’m struggling between simple past and present perfect. I Think the right answer would be “ have left “ since present perfect indicates the wallet is still in the restaurant. If we used simple past then the sentence would be : I left my wallet in the restaurant this morning. But then went to the restaurant and took it and now I have it with me. Is this reasoning correct or I’m wrong? Best wishes Andi

Hi Andi,

You could use either the present perfect or past simple here. Both make sense.

  • The present perfect implies a present connection (i.e., the wallet is still in the restaurant now and I need to go back and get it, as you said).
  • The past simple means this event ('I left my wallet') happened in the past. It could have been some time ago (e.g., hours ago) or recently (e.g., one minute ago). Adding a time phrase (e.g., 'this morning') is optional. Your example sentence is correct, but we can also use the past simple if you haven't collected the wallet yet. Whether you have collected the wallet yet or not doesn't change the fact that you left it in the restaurant.

I hope that makes sense :)

If you have more present perfect questions, it would be great if you could post them on our present perfect page.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team