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 (123 votes)

Hello Amir,

I wouldn't say that it's always possible to use the past simple instead of the past perfect with 'after' or 'before', but it is often possible and even preferable when the conjunction makes the sequence of actions clear and there are no other time references in the sentence that interfere.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 01/10/2022 - 11:37


Dear Team,

How to say the following sentences.

It is easier to do it that way.
It is easy to do it that way.
If my question is not clear, please let me know, so that I can rephrase it.
Thank you,

Hello kingson,

Both of those sentences are grammatically correct. Both can be used to compare two or more methods of doing something. I'd probably use the one with the comparative form ('easier') because it seems a bit clearer to me.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Dr Paul on Tue, 27/09/2022 - 10:44


Hello Kirk,

In a Bloomberg newsletter I came across the following sentence:

"Only 19 out of the 193 countries that vowed to put forward more ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions at the UN-sponsored climate talks in Glasgow last November had done so by last Friday, the deadline set by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change."

There are two points in time, namely "last November" and "last Friday". Could you explain to me why, in this example, the past perfect ("had done") comes after the past simple ("vowed")? Usually it is the other way around (hence the name "super past" or "double past").



Hi Paul,

Although this sentence is correct and natural, I can see why you ask about this usage. The reference point of 'had done so' is the deadline for putting forward of more ambitious targets, which most countries missed. The past simple 'vowed' refers to a more indefinite past time -- something that simply happened which isn't really explicitly related to 'had done so'.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk,

Many thanks for your swift reply.

My thoughts exactly regarding (the use of) the past perfect. The past simple didn't seem right. I was grappling with this grammar issue, because the English grammar textbooks say that the past simple is used for an (completed) action at a (definite) time in the past and the past perfect is used when an action happens before the aforementioned action.



Submitted by DudaRezendeAguiar on Fri, 16/09/2022 - 15:13


Hi, I couldn't get why on grammar text 3 " First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread." the answer was made and not had made. Thanks

Hello DudaRezendeAguiar,

When we describes sequences of actions in the past we use the past simple:

I got up, had a shower, got dressed and made myself a coffee. Then I packed my bag and went to work.

That is why 'made' is correct here.


The past perfect (had + past participle) is used when one action is before another in the past but only when the earlier action directly influences in some way the later action, All perfect forms work like this: present perfect has a present result, past perfect has a past result etc. It's not just that one action was before another, but rather than there is a connection of some kind. For example:

I had some extra time because I had packed my bag the night before, so I made myself a second cup of coffee before leaving.

Here, we use 'had packed' (past perfect) because it has a connection to the other action: it is the reason why I could have a second coffee.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sat, 27/08/2022 - 09:05


Dear Team,

Which of the following is correct to say?

1. If he repaired it he would know was there any fault in it.
2.If he repaired it he would have known was there any fault in it.

which of the following is correct to say?

1. The programs had been running in their current form for over 5 years.
2. The programs has been running in their current form for over 5 years.

Which of the following is correct?

1. The programs has been running in their current form in the past for 5 years.
2. The programs had been running in their current form in the past for 5 years.

Please enlighten me in this regard,

Thank you,

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

I'll talk about each pair of sentences one by one.

1. Both sentences need corrections. They should be:

  1. If he repaired it, he would know if there was any fault in it.
  2. If he had repaired it, he would have known if there was any fault in it.

Sentence 1 describes an imagined present or future situation (second conditional). Sentence 2 describes an imagined past situation (third conditional). In both, we need to add "if" (or "whether").

2. Sentence 1 is grammatically correct. Since it uses the past perfect, we would expect that in the text where it appears, the running of the programs happens before some other related event. However, the context for using this sentence is not provided here, so we cannot say whether it is used correctly in that sense. Sentence 2 is not correct, but we can change "has" to "have" to make the present perfect structure.

3. Only sentence 2 is correct. First, sentence 1 should also change "has" to "have" to make the present perfect. But there is another issue: the present perfect doesn't seem to make sense here because the time of the action is "in the past", but "have been running" suggests that the programs are still running now.

Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team