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.

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

Average: 4.2 (122 votes)
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Hello tunalee,

In this case, the verb 'ate' refers to something that was true for many people did regularly over a period of time.

It would be a bit strange to say 'had eaten' in this sentence because eating out once a week is a repeated action; we don't typically use the past perfect to speak about repeated or periodic actions in this way.

Whenever it's possible to use a past simple form and also a past perfect form, we typically use the past simple one unless we want to emphasise the action for some reason. You might find our Talking about the past page useful, because there all the most commonly used tenses to speak about the past are explained together.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Profile picture for user Asala Mohammed

Submitted by Asala Mohammed on Thu, 28/09/2023 - 18:20

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Dear teachers,
I hope you doing great, I have an enquiry.
you mentioned before that we can't use past perfect to talk about a single past tense action, but in the example (It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May) why does it have just one past tense (hadn't rained)?
could you explain this point to me, please?
Kind regards,
Asala Mohammed

Hi Asala Mohammed,

Thank you for your question! To be precise, we use the past perfect to talk about a past action that is related to another reference point in the past. This reference point can be:

  1. another past action (e.g. The plants died because it hadn't rained for months). 
  2. a point or moment in the past (for example: It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May). 

If there is no other reference point in the past, the past perfect isn't correct.

I hope that helps to understand it.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thank you teacher Jonathan,
so then, if I want to talk about a point or moment in the past should I use "Still"?
Can you give me some examples about this situation, please?
Is my example right? They still hadn't replied on my mail.
Best regards,
Asala Mohammed

Hello Asala Mohammed,

The sentence 'They still hadn't replied to my email' (notice 'to' instead of 'on') can be correct if the other past reference point that Jonathan mentioned is clear from the situation.

For example, if the sentence before mentions an earlier action -- 'In January I wrote an email asking my grandparents if I could visit them in February. On 21 February, they still hadn't replied to my email.' -- then your sentence can work because it refers to that other reference point.

Sometimes the other reference point isn't mentioned immediately before a past perfect form, and in these cases it's still possible to use the past perfect form correctly.

But if the other reference point isn't clear, then we don't use the past perfect.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Thank you teacher Kirk,
I got you, but I have a question.
In this case if I want to talk about a reference point in the past should I just use "Still"?
Another question about my previous example.
They still hadn’t replied to my email since two weeks.
They still hadn’t replied to my email at two weeks.
Are they both correct?
Kind regards,
Asala Mohammed

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.

 

Peter

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]

 

Peter

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