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

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Submitted by Maria Don Chandy on Fri, 22/01/2021 - 17:35

b. We are taught honesty. (past perfect) could you help me with this with explanation

Hello Maria Don Chandy,

I'm afraid I don't understand the instructions for this. If you are supposed to change the verb to a past perfect form, then you change the verb 'are' into the past perfect ('had been'): 'We had been taught honesty'.

By the way, the verbs 'are taught' and 'had been taught' are passive forms.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Loc Duc on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 10:11

the second rule to use the past perfect is to show the order of 2 past events, the past perfect shows the earlier actions, and the past simple shows the later actions. and why we can't apply this rule to this sentence? First I ___ the salad, then I toasted the bread. Answer: made why not 'd made

Hello Loc Duc,

It's true that the past perfect shows one event was earlier in the past than another, but there also needs to be a connection between the two events. For example:

I got up, had a shower and made a cup of coffee.

Here, the past simple is used for each action as there is no connection between the events. They form a sequence but they do not affect or cause one another.


The thief had escaped when the police arrived.

This example is different. The thief escaping is clearly related to the police's arrival, as they were hoping to catch the thief. In other words, the escape changed the situation for the police in a key way. Thus, the past perfect is used.


 I hope that helps to clarify it for you.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much Peter, Every time I see you answers, a new avenue opens up for my better understanding in English. Keep it up. "John told me that Tim had finished his work." In the above reported sentence (Direct speech form for the above sentence- John said to me "Tim finished his work") - can we consider that Tim's finishing of work has influenced John's statement? Are they (john tole me & Tim had finished ) related to each other? Are they connected? If so, how? and in what way? Please enlighten me in this regard. Thank you, kingson

Submitted by Zuzanna on Mon, 04/01/2021 - 20:25

Hello, Could you tell me why in the sentence "My grandma died before I was born." the author did not use Past Perfect to say ''My grandma had died...."?
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 05/01/2021 - 08:41

In reply to by Zuzanna


Hello Zuzanna,

It's a question of preference, I think. Both forms are grammatically possible.

The past perfect emphasises a connection between the two events and would probably be used if the writer wanted to talk about how not having their grandma had changed their life, for example.

The past simple describes two events in the past, but does not necessarily mean that they are connected or influence one another.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hatchaitchi88 on Sun, 03/01/2021 - 21:57

Hi! I saw recently example in English Grammar in Use. " The ship sank because the engineer didn't call for help until it was too late". I think, "...because the engineer hadn't called until it was too late;" or why there must be didn't? I don't know, really. past perfect because thing (or action) hadn't done until moment. What would you say?

Hi Hatchaitchi88,

It's a good question :) Both the past perfect (hadn't called) and the past simple (didn't call) are correct here.

The action of calling for help happened before the ship sinking, so the past perfect makes sense.

But, speakers often simplify by using the past simple instead of the past perfect, if the order of the events is clear in the rest of the sentence. In this situation, it's logical that not calling for help would happen before the ship sinking. It says because the engineer didn't call for help ... . 'Because' shows what caused something, and a cause must logically come before the effect. So, that's why the past perfect can be simplified to the past simple here.

Does that make sense?


The LearnEnglish Team

Oh, now I understand, thank you. There is one more question. In grammar test 2 on this page, question 6: "We had the French exam this morning. It wasn't as hard as I'd expected, though." I'd expected = "I had expected", right? First I thought that there would have been Past Perf. Contin., but then I thought, maybe there is Past Perfect, because "except" is non continuous verb; So, what is true? Is my quess right?