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 with before

We can also use the past perfect followed by before 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

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Submitted by Dr Paul on Mon, 20/06/2022 - 18:14

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Dear Sir or Madam,

Could you explain to me why in the following paragraph (the last sentence) the past perfect is used and not the future perfect?

"Britain’s draconian attempt to crack down on illegal migration played out on many stages on June 14th. In Wiltshire a chartered plane stood ready to make the first flight deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda since that controversial policy was announced in April. In Strasbourg a late ruling by the European Court of Human Rights found that an Iraqi man who was due to be on the flight should not be deported until the legality of the policy had been scrutinised at a High Court hearing in July." ('The real test of the government’s Rwanda policy', The Economist, June 16th 2022)

Kind regards,

Dr Paul

Hello Dr Paul,

The basic meaning of the past perfect is to refer to a point in time further in the past than another point. Here, the 'other point in time' is the potential deportation of the Iraqi man, and the point in time further in the past is the scrutiny of the policy at the High Court hearing.

As you can see, it doesn't always necessarily only refer to the past; as in this case, it can refer to the future as well. The explanation on this page covers the most common uses of the past perfect, but there are others.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user wisefool

Submitted by wisefool on Tue, 14/06/2022 - 02:22

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Hi.
In the sentence, "I had a friend"
Is it correct to use past perfect "had" as there is no other past event happened? Generally, as you said, past perfect tense is used when there are two past actions happened, what exactly is the use of 'had'. Is it not past perfect?
Kindly clarify this.
Thank you.

Hello wisefool,

'had' is a past simple form; the past perfect form is 'had had'. 'I had a friend' describes a general past situation. An example of the past perfect is 'I got frustrated because I had already had many problems with my car': the problems with my car happened several times in the more distant past and then the more recent action is me getting frustrated.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 03/06/2022 - 02:50

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Dear Team,
How can I say the following in a sentence?

He was uncomfortable and needed some bread to eat. Does "was" apply to the past verb "needed" as well?(if so then it will change he meaning of the sentence) Or do I need to make into two different sentences (He was uncomfortable and he needed some bread)?

Please help me in this regard.
Thank you,
kingson

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

The word "and" can connect two elements of the same syntactic level, e.g.:

  • two verbs (He ran and fell. = He ran and he fell.)
  • two participles/adjectives (The bread was sliced and buttered. = The bread was sliced and it was buttered.)
  • two verb phrases (I passed the test and will apply to university soon.)

Your first sentence is grammatically correct. "Was uncomfortable" and "needed some bread to eat" are two verb phrases for the same subject, "He". 

No, "was" does not apply to "needed" here, since that would make "was needed" ("He was needed some bread to eat" is ungrammatical). However, in another sentence, "was" (or "be") could apply to the second verb (e.g. "was sliced and buttered" in my example above).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much Jonathan,
That's fine with this sentence (He was uncomfortable and needed some bread) but what happens in a sentence like this... "They were confused and asked some questions." (I clarified this question with your team some months ago). I was under the impression that "confused" is an adjective (more likely to be an adjective than the past participle of a passive verb). So I need a clarification as to understand the "two verb phrases for the same subject" for the sentence mentioned above (They were confused and asked some questions).
So which is the better way to understand - whether to take it as a "two verb phrase" or "more likely to be an adjective rather than past participle of a passive verb.
Thank you again,
Regards,
kingson

Hi kingsonselvaraj,

I think there are two possible interpretations of "They were confused and asked some questions".

  1. They were confused and they asked some questions.
  2. They were confused and they were asked some questions (by somebody else).

For meaning 1, the basic structure is "They A and B" (A = were confused, B = asked some questions).

For meaning 2, the basic structure is "They were A and B" (A = confused, B = asked some questions)

I agree that "confused" is more likely to be an adjective. To me, the most obvious meaning is that if somebody is confused, they ask questions to clear up their confusion (i.e., meaning 1). That seems logical. But in meaning 2, there's no obvious reason why somebody would ask questions to the confused people - although it is possible, of course - so looking at the sentence alone, we are unlikely to interpret it that way.

We cannot say which meaning is the better way to understand it, or which is the "correct" meaning, because we have no context for this sentence - we have no other clues to the intended meaning. So, I would say that meaning 1 is the most likely one, because its logic is more obvious, but meaning 2 is also possible. It really depends on the context.

Does that make sense? I hope it helps. By the way, if you have more questions about this topic, they would fit will on our Verb phrases page instead of the Past perfect page.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team