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.

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

Average: 4.2 (66 votes)
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Hi AboodKh9,

It's a matter of emphasis. The continuous form emphasises the duration and ongoing-ness of the activity. The simple form emphasises the completeness of the action, even though it also has duration, as you observed.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thank you so much for the response.

If you please, just one more thing.

Is there a difference between the two tenses regarding the time when the action was completed?
For example:
1) I had been watching a movie when my brother entered the room.
(Does this mean that "watching the movie was completed at the same time my brother entered? Or before the time my brother entered? Or continued after my brother entered?)

2) I had watched the movie when my brother entered the room.

** I know that the action in past perfect simple completed before the other one, but the past perfect continuous is confusing here because I don't know if the action was completed before the other one Or was completed at the same time as the other one Or continued after that!

** and using Since or For means that the action in the two tenses (past perfect simple and continuous continued until the other one started? Or could be finished before that?
Thank you for your patience,
I will be grateful for you.

Hi AboodKh9,

No problem. 

In sentence 1 (past perfect continuous), we just know that "watching the movie" was until the time that your brother entered, and included that moment, i.e., it has the same meaning as the past continuous: I was watching a movie when my brother entered. But the focus is different: the past continuous focuses on that moment when your brother entered, while the past perfect continuous focuses on the time until that moment.

The past perfect continuous does not show clearly when "watching the movie" ended - it may have ended at that moment, or continued and then ended some time afterwards. There's no information about that.

In sentence 2 (past perfect simple), the movie-watching was already completed some time before your brother entered.

If you add a phrase with since or for, it doesn't change the meanings that I explained above. However, phrases showing duration are most commonly used with the present perfect continuous, since that also emphasises duration. You can use one with the past perfect simple too, e.g. I had watched the movie for two hours when my brother entered, but this is likely to be understood as meaning something similar to the continuous sentence, i.e. watching the movie continuing until the moment that your brother entered, because the sentence construction suggests that meaning or continuing until that moment (... for two hours when ...). 

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Marggie2023 on Wed, 31/05/2023 - 22:40

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Very clear explanation to understand and review Past perfect. The tests were very useful to practice this grammar topic after studying the rules and explanation.

Submitted by Winnie29 on Fri, 26/05/2023 - 01:13

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Really useful information, sometimes i used this tense using my guts to stablish the rules,now i can have a guide to used it properly

Submitted by Majonova26 on Thu, 25/05/2023 - 03:29

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This is a very interesting grammar topic and it's always good to review it to verify understanding. Both tests were really useful to practice Past Perfect and keep learning English.

Submitted by yajusipa on Wed, 24/05/2023 - 04:50

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Hi everyone
This is an excellent web page to practice English and improve written production. I think, I understand well this grammar topic, but it is always something new to learn every time you give the chance to train and assign your knowledge. Thanks!

Submitted by noriegaandrea27 on Wed, 24/05/2023 - 02:26

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To be honest, this topic is kind of difficult to me since I decided to study English 5 years ago. However, I found this web site very helpful and clearly. The practice tests here are great and help me to improve my grammar skills.

Submitted by hagar_11307 on Wed, 17/05/2023 - 15:41

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Hello.
Can someone tell me which of the following sentences is correct?
1. She remembered that she watched a TV program about online learning last week.
2. She remembered that she had watched a TV program about online learning last week.

Hello hagar_11307,

Both are correct but I think the second one is more common. The past perfect (had watched) emphasises that the action (watching) had some influence on the later situation. For example, if the person is trying to solve some problem related to online learning then the fact she watched a program on it is relevant - it may solve the problem.

The past simple (watched) does not carry this kind of emphasis so would be used if there is no real connection. For example, perhaps the person is trying to remember the name of a film she saw on TV but cannot. You might say 'She remembered that she watched a TV program about online learning, but she couldn't remember anything else'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team