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: 4.3 (114 votes)
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Submitted by andreus1999 on Fri, 23/11/2018 - 14:29

Hi I have learnt that when we are talking about how long something is happening we use the past perfect continues, is this true? if it's true why the structure of this phrase?: It had not rained for three months, so the land was very dry. it shouldn't be: it hadn't been raining for three months,so the land was very dry. please correct me if I have redacted wrong
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 24/11/2018 - 08:54

In reply to by andreus1999


Hello andreus1999,

Simple forms can include duration:

I lived in Paris for many years.


We use progressive aspect when an action is interrupted by another event:

I was living in Paris when my brother got married.


There are other uses of progressive aspect. You can read about them on this page.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aya salah on Thu, 15/11/2018 - 16:27

Hi learn English team I was searching on the internet and I found this sentence: yesterday we had walked to school but later rode the bus home. But then the sentence was corrected and had walked changed with walked Why here the past perfect changed to past

Hi Aya salah,

It's really difficult for us to explain this without the context, as there are so many possibilities and to explain them takes quite a bit of effort on our part. But, to try to help you, note that the past perfect doesn't make sense if there isn't some other past reference point. I suppose that's why this sentence was corrected this way.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bakh.sh85 on Thu, 08/11/2018 - 13:25

Thank you a lot Mr. Kirk for the response. Thanks for The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bakh.sh85 on Wed, 07/11/2018 - 15:53

Hello I want to comment and ask questions to get help from you on other topics too..for example on "tag questions" or any other topics but as i see no one has commented on the mentioned topic..can we ask our questions here for other topics too? Thank you a lot...
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 08/11/2018 - 07:05

In reply to by bakh.sh85


Hello bakh.sh85,

You are welcome to ask us questions about question tags or other topics. We only ask that you ask them on the most relevant page you can find. For example, to ask about question tags, the most logical page would be our question tags page, but since there is no space for comments there, the next most relevant is probably questions and negatives.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bakh.sh85 on Sun, 04/11/2018 - 17:52

Thank you, Mr. Peter It helped a lot and still it may be confusing to me the use of some words like 'before' , 'until' and 'by the time" and "when". For example, if I say "When she called, I went out." it means both actions happened at the same time OR "When she called, I had gone out." it means the second part happened before the first part which is 'When she called, ... '. AND please tell me if the following sentences can be both correct or not: Until 1800, most immigration had been from Britain. Until 1800, most immigration was from Britain.

Hello bakh.sh85,

The relationships between different verb forms are quite nuanced. For example:

When she called, I went out. [I left at the moment she called, possibly as a result of the call]

When she called, I had gone out. [I was not at home when she called]

When she called, I was going out. [I was in the process of leaving when she called]


Both the sentences about immigration are possible. Without knowing the context in which they are used, I cannot say which is better.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by elaliyev on Fri, 02/11/2018 - 19:28

Hi, may I clarify one thing? When we are looking forwards from past, are we allowed to use past perfect for sequencing actions? For example can we say: "He said that I would receive a confirmation e-mail that the reimbursement had been made". Thank you