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 with before

We can also use the past perfect followed by before 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: 3 (2 votes)

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.

Best,

Paul

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

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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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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Dear Team,

Which of the following is correct to say?

1. If he repaired it he would know was there any fault in it.
or
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.
or
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,
kingson

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?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Jonathan for taking effort to answer my questions.

I have few more questions to ask to make it clearer for me.

1. Could you please explain to me what you have meant by second and third conditional?
2. The first sentence (If he repaired it, he would know if there was any fault in it) indicates imagined present and future situation. Therefore it is applicable to the present situation as well (because normally I think the words "if" and "would" in sentence always indicate the future situation)? In that case the first part of the sentence (If he repaired it) is in a past form, so please explain to me as to how I can take it for a present/current situation. Could you please provide any other examples for this?

I have got other questions to ask, but I will ask them bit later.

Hope, you understand.
Thank you for your help!
Regards,
kingson

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

No worries :) We are happy to help as much as we can.

1. Conditionals are structures that express a result which is dependent on a condition. You can find explanations and examples on these pages (click the links):

2. Yes, "If he repaired it" refers to an unreal present action (or future action). The past verb form (repaired) here indicates that the action is unreal (i.e., he does not repair it, or it is unlikely that he will repair it), rather than the action happening in the past. For more examples, please see the page about second conditionals linked above.

If you have questions about these, we welcome you to post them on the relevant page.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by muhaos on Sat, 13/08/2022 - 17:24

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I am a little confused between those two examples:
- We'd finished all the water before we were halfway up the mountain.
Here is "before" used without "had" for the action that didn't happen at that time.
But in the following part of the lesson is told that we need to use "had" after "before" for action that was not done when the past simple action happened, as in the example:
- They left before I'd spoken to them.

Hello muhaos,

We use the past perfect when it is important to make clear that one action was before another action in the past. In both of your examples this is the case.

 

We'd finished all the water before we were halfway up the mountain.

> finishing the water happens before reaching halfway up the mountain

 

They left before I'd spoken to them.

The meaning here can be expressed as follows: When they left I had (still) not spoken with them.

> not speaking to them happens (doesn't happen) before leaving

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by polinanana on Tue, 09/08/2022 - 17:35

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I'm confused with the use of the Past Simple and Past Perfect in one sentence in some cases.
For example 'They had left the country before their daughter was born' I understand that first they left, then the daughter was born. But here ''Mum phoned before she'd heard the news'' why the firs part is not in the past perfect, she first phoned, then heard