Grammar: Past Perfect vs. Past Simple (Review & Exercises)

English Level: Upper-Intermediate

Language Focus: A review of the Past Simple, the Past Perfect (Simple), and the Past Perfect Progressive (Continuous)

Grammar Worksheetpast-perfect-past-simple-worksheet.docx (scroll down to study the exercises online)

Jump to: Past Simple (below), Past Perfect Simple, Past Progressive, Exercises


Verb Tense Review: The Past Simple

We use the past simple verb tense to talk about events that happened at a specific time in the past. Usually, in these sentences, there is a word like ‘yesterday’ or ‘last year’ which shows the action happened at a time in the past that is finished.

A timeline for the past simple verb tense.

Past Simple Keywords: yesterday, last week, last month, last year, in 1994

  • I washed my clothes yesterday
  • I met her in 2008.

This actions happened in the past, they are finished.

Now, let’s look at some examples with two actions in the past.

Timeline for past simple with two actions

  • I went to the store (Action 1). Then, I bought oranges (Action 2). 
  • I woke up (Action 1) and brushed my teeth (Action 2). 

This is usually how we speak and tell stories: we start with the earliest action (waking up) and then describe what happened next (brushing your teeth). This is speaking chronologically, which means describing the earliest event and then what happened after it.

This will be important for when we talk about the Past Perfect (next).


 

Verb Tense Review: The Past Perfect

To use the past perfect, we need to have two actions in the past. But, when we talk about the actions, we do not speak chronologically. Instead, we speak about a recent action, and then what happened earlier.

Subject + [ Auxiliary verb ‘had’ ] + [ Verb in Past Participle ]

Past Perfect Keywords: by, by the time, until, before

A timeline for the past perfect simple

  • She couldn’t drive (Action 2) because she had lost her keys (Action 1). 
  • When we arrived (Action 2) at the theatre, the movie had already started (Action 1). 
  • By the time I moved into my own apartment (Action 2), I had finished high school (Action 1).

In each sentence, there are two actions., and one action happened before the most recent action. Let’s compare the same ideas using in both tenses.

  • Past Simple: On Monday, she lost her keys. On Tuesday, she couldn’t drive. (= this is a chronological story, with time moving forward.)
  • Past Perfect: On Tuesday, she couldn’t drive because she had lost her keys on Monday. (= not chronological — moving backwards in time, not forward.)

  • Past Simple: The movie started. Then we arrived. (= chronological)
  • Past Perfect: We arrived but the movie had already started. (= not chronological)

  • Past Simple: I finished high school. Then I moved into my own apartment. (= chronological)
  • Past Perfect: When I moved into my own apartment, I had already finished high school. (= not chronological)

Can you see the difference? To summarize, when we talk about an action that happened before another past action, we use the past perfect (had + past participle) to describe the earliest action.

Using the Past Perfect Progressive (Continuous)

The Past Perfect Progressive describes an action that started before a certain action in the past, and was still happening when the other past action happened.

Use the past perfect progressive in English

Subject + [ Auxiliary verb ‘had’ ] + [ been] + [ Verb in ~ing form]

Past Perfect Progressive Keywords: by, by the time, until, before

  • She had been waiting for 30 minutes until the bus came.
  • He hadn’t been doing well in class, so I was surprised when he passed the test.
  • The economy had been improving until the war in 2002.

In all these examples, we want to focus on the fact that an action was in progress at a certain time in the past. Also, the action that was in progress started before the action that interrupted it. When we talk about an action in progress, of course, we use a progressive tense.

Remember, the Past Perfect Simple focuses on an action that was finished before another action. For example:

Past Perfect Simple: He had already died when I was introduced to his music. (The underlined action was finished (he died before you heard his music))

The Past Perfect Progressive focuses on an action that had started earlier and was still in progress at the time of another past action.

Past Perfect Progressive: I had been working there for a year when the company shut down.  (You were still working there on the day it shut down).

Common Question: What’s the Difference between the Past Perfect Progressive and the Past Progressive?

The Past Progressive focuses on an action that was happening when another action happened in the past. The form is WAS/WERE + Verb in ~ing form.

  • I was watching TV when the telephone rang. (These actions happened at the same time)

The Past Perfect Progressive focuses on an action that started earlier and was happening when another action happened in the past.

  • I had been watching TV (for an hour) when the telephone rang.

With the past perfect progressive sentence, you want to focus on the idea that the action had started earlier and was still in progress. For this reason, we usually include the duration of the action (‘for an hour’ / ‘for three weeks’ / ‘since 1998’) with the past perfect progressive.

With the past progressive, you are only focusing on the idea that the action was happening at the same time as another action. We cannot include a duration (‘for an hour’) with the past progressive because you need to use a perfect tense (past perfect, present perfect, future perfect) to describe actions that happen over a period of time.


We’re almost done with the past perfect. Let me introduce some common structures (sentence forms) that are used with the past perfect.

Using the Past Perfect: Common Structures

By + [past time], + [past perfect clause]

  • By 2010, I had graduated university.
  • By August, I had made $10,000.

By the time + [past event], + [past perfect clause]

  • By the time you called me, I had already gone to bed.
  • By the time I was 30, I still hadn’t kissed a girl.

Until + [past event], + [past perfect clause]

  • Until I moved to Canada, I hadn’t seen snow.
  • I hadn’t met an Iranian until I met Maryam.
  • He had worked for 60 years at the company until he died.

Special Case: Before

If you use the word ‘before’, it is not necessary to use the past perfect because the relationship with time is clear. (The word ‘before’ clearly means that an action happened before another action).  Both of these sentences are okay:

  • I studied before I took the test. (Okay)
  • I had studied before I took the test. (Okay)

Both sentences mean the same thing.


That’s it. Now try these exercises for practicing past perfect (simple) and past progressive (continuous).

 

Practice: Exercises on the Past Perfect Simple & Past Perfect Progressive

Exercise #1 – Past Simple or Past Perfect Simple?

Remember, if two actions happen in chronological order, then use the past simple for both.

  • I woke up and then brushed my teeth. (one action happens after another)
  • When I got home, I made dinner.

If two actions happen at the same time, use the past simple if the verb is a state verb (see lesson on state verbs/non-progressive verbs here).

  • I slept because I was tired. (BE verb = non-progressive verb that cannot be used in ~ing)
  • I didn’t order food because I didn’t have money. (Have = state verb that cannot be used in ~ing form)

If one action happens before an action, use the past perfect for the earliest action.

  • When I got home, my girlfriend had already fallen asleep.

Good luck!

  1. I left my office and then (take) a taxi home.
  2. I failed my test because I (not/study).
  3. The airplane departed by 8 p.m. and (arrive) in Toronto three hours later.
  4. I didn’t order food, so I (not/pay).
  5. I didn’t order food because I (forgot) my wallet.
  6. By the time I got to the party, my friends (left). I missed them.
  7. By the year 2005, her parents (divorce) unfortunately.
  8. In 2000, her parents (fall) in love.
  9. She (not/see) snow until she moved to Canada.

 

Exercise #2: Both Verb Tenses

Use the past perfect for the earliest action and past simple for the most recent. Hint: Ask yourself, “What happened or started first?” The earliest action will be in a past perfect tense.

  1. I (sleep) in my car last night because my wife (lock) the front door.
  2. The young man (be) in the police station because he (stole) some money.
  3. By 2010, the business (make) over 10 million dollars.
  4. The only thing in Mike’s refrigerator (be) was a slice of pizza that he  (not/eat) the night before.
  5. Until Ken (find) this webpage, he (not study) the past perfect.
  6. I (lose) my job because I (be) late to work several times.
  7. She (be) sick because she (eat) some undercooked chicken.
  8. I (can/not/find) my bicycle last night because someone (steal) it.

 

Exercise #3: Past Simple, Past Perfect Simple or Past Perfect Progressive

  1. I (study) for 5 hours, so I (be) tired.
  2. I (love) her until I (find) out that she (cheat) on me for a year.
  3. Maria (work) at the company for 20 years until they (fire) her one day for no reason.
  4. John (wait) for Paula for 1 hour before she finally (arrive).
  5. Lisa (have) trouble seeing the screen because she (not/bring) her glasses.
  6. Cheryl (not/wait) long when John (show up).
  7. I (exercise) for 30 minutes when the phone (ring).
  8. The traveler suddenly (realize) that he (leave) home without his passport.

 


I hope you’ve found these exercises on the past simple and past perfect (simple/progressive) useful. If you have any questions or if you find a mistake, you can leave a comment below.

– Matthew Barton (copyright) / Creator of Englishcurrent.com

Related Lessons & Exercises:

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