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 (94 votes)
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Hello Asala,

As Kirk said, if the reference point is already clear (from something earlier in the conversation, for example) then you don't need to repeat it. For example:

A: I sent them an email two weeks ago.

B: What did they say?

A: I checked this morning and they still hadn't replied.

The reference point is clear from the earlier sentence, so there's no need to repeat it.

On the other hand:

A: I don't know what they want.

B: Maybe you should send them an email.

A: I sent them an email two weeks ago and they hadn't replied this morning.

Here the reference point needs to be stated because it wasn't mentioned earlier. Without it the 'still' would not make sense.


In answer to your other question, I'm afraid both sentence are wrong! In this context we would use 'after':

They still hadn’t replied to my email after two weeks.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much teacher peter, your explanation was quite clear.
But I still have unclear point about using the past perfect to talk about a single past tense action, I understood that it comes in this case (the other past reference point that teacher Jonathan mentioned). Could you give me some more examples about the past perfect which talks about a single action, please?
I thank you all teacher team.
All the best,
Asala Mohammed

Hello again Asala,

The single action point is simply another way to say that you need two time references (the action and something else).

For example:

Sue lived in London. [a single event]

Sue had lived in Manchester for years before she moved the London. [two events]



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear teacher Peter
Thank you for your explanation, but I meant the single event at the past perfect tense.
the example: It still hadn't rained at the beginning of may, I need some more examples to understand this case.
Could you give me some more examples about the past perfect which talks about the single event, please?
Kind regards,
Asala Mohammed

Hi Asala Mohammed,

In this sentence, a past time is mentioned: the beginning of May. If you use the past simple - It still didn't rain at the beginning of May - it means that there was no rain at that time (i.e. at the beginning of May).

If you use the past perfect - It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May - it means that there was no rain at or before that time (in April, for example). It means that we standing at the moment of the beginning of May and from that point looking back even further into the past. This is a single action because the sentence only contains one action. We understand the time of the past perfect action in relation to the other past time that is mentioned, so for a single event it's necessary to mention another past time (e.g. the beginning of May).

Using "still" just emphasises that we wanted or expected it to rain but it did not rain for a long time. 

Here are some more examples of single events using the past perfect.

  • By 2010, the company had doubled in size. (i.e. the growth of the company happened in or before 2010). 
  • I'd finished all my homework by lunchtime. (i.e. I did the homework before lunchtime)
  • At 2 a.m., I still hadn't fallen asleep. (i.e. I wanted to fall asleep before 2 a.m. but I was unable to).

I hope that helps to understand it.


LearnEnglish team

Thank you very much teacher Jonathan.
Actually now I have a clear idea about this case, and I wrote some examples, if you don't mind, could you look at them, please?
If there's any mistake, let me know please.
-By 2014, I had completed 19 years old.
-I had worked at that company for 3 years after the graduation of college.
-At 9:00 p.m., I had left my friend's house.
-I had left my job before the beginning of July.
-in 2023, I still hadn't gone to Egypt.
-I still hadn't played football after the age of twenty.
-I had gone to Paris before traveling to England.
All the best,
Asala Mohammed

Hi Asala Mohammed,

Your sentences are well written. I just have a couple of comments.

  • In the first example, the use of the past perfect is good. But for becoming 19 years old (or any age), the usual verb is turnBy 2014, I had turned 19 (years old).
  • I had worked at that company for 3 years after the graduation of college. A past perfect action happens before another past action or time (it has other meanings too, but that is the main meaning). But in this sentence, the past perfect action happened after the graduation. So, there's no reason to use the past perfect in this sentence. In a full context, however, it can still be correct, if another past action or time is mentioned somewhere else in the conversation, such as "I left the company" in this example: I left the company in 2020. I had worked at that company for 3 years after the graduation of college. (We understand "I had worked" as happening before "I left the company").
  • I still hadn't played football after the age of twenty. Same as above, this past perfect action happens after the other past time (the age of twenty), so to be correct there should be some other past time reference somewhere else in the conversation.

I can see that you have increased your understanding of this. Good work!


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Wed, 23/08/2023 - 02:45


Dear Team,

I have been writing a story and a 'part of it' goes like the following.
(Context in the story: A father talking to his son)
"My son, I 'have been noticing' (present perfect continuous) your collection of rocks and 'have carefully analyzed' (present perfect) the connection among those rocks. And I 'noticed' (past tense) that there 'had been' (past perfect) an array of rocks, which 'resembled' a pattern.

My question here is...

Can I change from present perfect (have been noticing) and (have carefully analyzed) to past (noticed and resembled) and past perfect (had been) like this?

Please help me in this regard.
Thank you,

Hello kingson,

In your first sentence 'have been noticing' does not work as surely you are describing a single event. 'Have noticed' would be OK, or just 'noticed' since the noticing is not something new (because you have done some later analysis) and can therefore be placed in the past. The second verb there is fine but could be continuous as the analysis can be seen as a single action or event or as an ongoing process over a period of time. Thus the first sentence would be:

"My son, I have noticed / noticed your collection of rocks and have carefully analyzed / have been carefully analyzing the connection among those rocks.

In the second sentence the past simple is fine. However, there is no need for past perfect. Past simple is OK but so is present simple since you are describing something which is still true:

And I noticed that there was / is an array of rocks, which resembled / resembles a pattern.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Peter. Its another mile stone in my understanding the English grammar.
Regards, kingson