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 (66 votes)
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Submitted by Nabeelah on Sat, 08/02/2020 - 08:00

Hello can we use past perfect to describe two or more actions EXAMPLE They had found it and they had investigated it but they had never found a solution for it.I know this is a dumb question but thr was something similar to this in a novel. So can we deacribe two or more past actions using past perfect? How?

Hello Nabeelah,

It's fine to use the past perfect for multiple actions so long as there is a later past time reference point. The past perfect has the meaning of before then, so there must be another point in the past before which the events take place. For example, your sentence without any context would not make sense as there is no later point of reference. Of course, in context there probably would be:

Before 1998 there was little progress. They had found it and they had investigated it but they had never found a solution for it. But in 1998 that changed.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kingsonselvaraj on Fri, 07/02/2020 - 10:00

Dear Sir, Which one of the following sentence is correct? Jesus said that we need to do it until he comes.(It is a fact - "we need to do it" - so, present tense is used here) or Jesus said that we needed to do it until he came.( It is said in the past, so past tense is used - "we needed to do this until he came" - And it is a reported sentence as well) I am so confused here, as to how can I say this. Please help me in this regard. Thank you, Regards, kingson
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 08/02/2020 - 07:36

In reply to by kingsonselvaraj


Hello kingson,

Both forms are possible. When we shift the tense back in reported speech it does not mean that the action is in the past.

For example:


Direct speech:

I like you.

Reported speech:

1. She said that she liked me.

2. She said that she likes me.

Both options are grammatically correct. The first sentence tells us that she liked me at the time she said it. It does not tell us if this is still true or not. The second tells us that she liked me at the time she said it and that it is still true today.

In your example, the context within the sentence (until he came) already tells us that the action is still true, so whether or not the tense is present (need) or past (needed) makes no difference.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter, Thank you very much for your time and energy to explain things to me. In my humble opinion, gramatically, the speech you are reporting (She said) is understood to refer to that past time, not the current time, therefore "She said that she liked me." - should be correct; not the other one (She said that she likes me.). If you say both options are right, then this should also be gramatically correct - e.g. Tom told(past tense) Tim that Simon has not finished(Present perfect) the work. - Here we are taking the current situation into account. Here, I am not challenging your answer, but I need indebt understanding of sentence formation in English. So please do not mistake me. And one more thing............. Is "until he came" related to the past time (Jesus said) reference? If yes, Please explain to me how. Because my understanding is "we needed to" - is directly linked to past time (Jesus said) reference and not the "until he came". If my understanding is correct, then can we say like the following? Jesus said we needed to do this until he COMES. Thank you, Regards, kingson

Dear Peter,

Can we say this in the following form?

"Jesus said we needed to do this until he comes." (here we know that Jesus has not come yet). So can we say "until he comes" (present tense) in this sentence with a past tense (Jesus said we needed) in it?
Hope, you understand what I want to know.


Hello kingson,

The sentence is grammatically fine. After 'until' we use a present form to talk about the future, just as we do with 'if' and 'when').

In the first part of the sentence you have reported a speech construction, and there are two choices with regard to tense:

1) ...said we need to do...

2) ...said we needed to do...

The first option makes it clear that it was true when Jesus said it and is still true now; the second option tells us that it was true when Jesus said it but does not tell us whether or not it is still true now. Another example may clarify:

"I love you," she said. [direct speech]

She said she loves me. [she loved me when she said it and she still loves me now]

She said she loved me. [she loved me when she said it; she may or may not still love me now]



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by _princess_ on Sun, 26/01/2020 - 07:01

Hello. Which one of the following is correct and why? He lived in London for 5 years and then moved to Manchester. He had been living in London for 5 years and the moved to Manchester.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 26/01/2020 - 07:40

In reply to by _princess_


Hello _princess_,

Both are possible. The choice of which to use depends upon the context and the speaker's intention.

When we want to show a straightforward sequence of events we use the past simple, as in your first example. When it is important for some reason to emphasise that one action came before another, or when the later event is in some way dependent on or changed by the earlier event, we can use the past perfect with a past simple, as in your second example.



The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you. Could you help me with one more sentence? Which variant is correct? He practised his grammar for 2 hours yesterday. Or He had been practising his grammar for 2 hours yesterday. Past Simple or Past Perfect Continous Thanks for your help.