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

 

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Hello govegan

We are currently revising the Intermediate grammar section and this page will be changing quite soon. It's difficult to speculate on the intentions of the people involved and although it's more likely than not that washing the cat was unintentional, I agree that the sentence shows poor taste and so I have changed it. Thanks very much for pointing it out to us and I'm sorry about that.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Sun, 29/09/2019 - 12:06

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Dear Sir, Which is right? The medium of instruction was (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. (If we use "was" - will that deny the current reality?) Or The The medium of instruction is (The medium of instruction is still in English) in English, when he was a student in the University. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 30/09/2019 - 06:42

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingson

The first one is correct since the 'when' clause makes it clear that the sentence is only about the past. I would recommend taking out the comma, though.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 26/09/2019 - 08:01

In reply to by mara

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Hello mara,

This is a similar example to the earlier one you posted. As I said in that answer, we sometimes use the past perfect for actions which are not completed.

For example:

The film had started before Thomas arrived.

In this sentence the sequence of the actions is clear: first the film started and then Thomas arrived. Both actions happened.

 

However, if we want to talk about something which did not happen, or which was not complete, then we use the past perfect with before:

The film started before Thomas had arrived.

Here we understand that one action (Thomas arriving) did not happen, or was not complete.

 

It may help to think about this as a structure related to what is sometimes called the third conditional. The past perfect is describing something which is not real, or not complete, just as in a past hypothetical conditional sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Giudg1 on Tue, 24/09/2019 - 20:51

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Is "she had done the dishes before I got home" right? Would be glad if someone answered

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Mon, 23/09/2019 - 13:08

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Dear Sir, Which is right to say? Have you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young? Or Had you ever been lifted up by your father, when you were young? Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 24/09/2019 - 07:31

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj

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Hello kingsonselvaraj,

Neither is correct. The phrase 'when you were young' tells us that the person is not young now, so the question is about a finished time period. The past simple is the best option:

Were you ever lifted up... when you were young?

The present perfect would be used if we were asking about the person's whole life, not just 'when you were young'.

We have no context for the sentence and no other time point for reference so there is no reason to use a past perfect.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team