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 (126 votes)

Hi Jonathan
Thanks again for your response

It was a hot day so I decided to prepare salad for lunch.
We can’t say “ I was deciding “ as this tense puts emphasis on the action and it make it looks like the speaker was deciding whether to prepare salad or not that day and that the speaker put a lot of thinking for the process which is not what he wants to convey here.

I heard a loud voice so I ran outside to see what 1)happened /2) was happening .
1) means that the event now had finished and whatever caused the person shout now was over I mean this is what simple past highlights
While 2) means that the action was caught in the middle and that the person was still arguing or fighting someone

Sorry for being too long I just want you to tell me if the above reasonings are correct as I want to test my knowledges.
Best regards

Hi Andi,

Yes, exactly! I think you've explained the meanings well.

In the second sentence, 'had happened' (past perfect) is also possible, since this event happened before the other two actions in the sentence (I heard / I ran outside) and caused them. That's probably my preferred answer - but it's also true that people often simplify by using the past simple instead of the past perfect when the order of events is clear enough in the sentence.

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan

Thanks for your response
I’m really glad I’d explained the tenses well

For years 1)I’d told / 2)I’d been telling all my friends that I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of London.

2) is correct 1) not correct
I wonder why 1) is not possible here assuming that the speaker doesn’t want to emphasise duration “ for years “ can 1) be possible in this sentence?

3) I’ve discovered / 4) I’ve been discovering a taste of silence I didn’t know I had.
3) is correct 4) not correct

Here 3) is correct because the speaker wants to focus on the discovery of the taste (result) and and not on how long this discovery was and makes it look like he is continuously discovering tastes.
Am I correct??

Best regards

Hi Andi,

Actually, I think 1) is grammatically possible. But 2) is probably preferred because including the phrase 'for years' at the beginning of the sentence suggests that the speaker does want to emphasise the duration.

I agree with your comments on 3) and 4).

Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan
Thanks again for your response

Heidi Hankins aged four sat an iq test after staff at her nursery 1)said / were saying / had said / had been saying she was so intelligent they 2)struggled / were struggling / had struggled / had been struggling to find activities to challenge her.
All answers are correct apart from were saying in 1).
My question is why “ were saying “ is not correct in 1). Isn’t it the same as “ were struggling “ in 2) which is correct.
I mean what is another way of emphasising that the staff was constantly saying and repeating that she was intelligent.
Best regards

Hi Andi,

It's because this action (saying she was so intelligent) occurred BEFORE the previously mentioned event (Heidi sat an IQ test) and directly caused it. You can use 'had been saying' to emphasise its duration, but not 'were saying' because the past continuous normally shows an action taking place at the SAME TIME as something else. So, in this example, the past continuous conflicts with the meaning of 'after' ('after staff at her nursery ....').

I hope that helps. If you have more questions, please start a new comment, as this thread is becoming narrow!

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 22/10/2021 - 01:58

In reply to by Peter M.


Dear Peter,

I have a question here, because previously one of your team's responses to me was - "present perfect contonuous" can connote a temporary condition. You also affirm that (temporary condition of continuous form) by your answer here. So my understanding is all the continuous forms (present, past, future, present perfect and past perfect continuous) can also have a temporary form of action. Please let me know, whether I am correct in my understanding or not.
Thank you,

Hello kingson,

That's correct. One common use of all continuous forms is to show that an action or state is temporary - or perceived as temporary - rather than permanent.

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Mon, 30/08/2021 - 01:41

Dear Team, I have got two sets of questions. 1. "It was thought to have been serious." What does this above sentence really mean? "Thought" is a past tense and have been is a "present perfect." How this mingles like this and what does this really mean? (gramatically which tense this sentence has?) and can we make a sentence like this (past tense and present tense mix)? Could you please help me in this regard. 2. "The love of God that has been showed (or) showed to human since beginning." Which one to use ? - "has been showed" or just "showed." I think, "has been showed" would be more appropriate because there is a "since" in it. Am I correct in my thinking? Thank you, Regards, kingson
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 09:32

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello kingson,

1. There a a number of phrases similar to this which we use to introduce opinions, beliefs, claims and so on:

It was thought to...

It was claimed to...

It was believed to...

The construction is a passive form and you can change the tense:

It is thought to...

It has been thought to...

These phrases are followed by an infinitive form. This could be the bare infinitive for a present meaning:

He was thought to be a member of the Mafia.

Or you can use a perfect infinitive:

He was thought to have been a member of the Mafia for most of his life.

Other forms of the infinitive are also possible: passive infinitives, continuous finitives etc. The form used will depend on the context. 


2. Yes, I think has been is more appropriate here as it describes an unfinished past time.



The LearnEnglish Team