LAST week, I discussed why the verb form “developed” rather than “had developed” is the correct usage in this sentence: “The communist legacy of isolation and the consequent stereotypes that developed also exerted a huge influence on the self-perception of people with disabilities.” This was in reply to a question by Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, who thought that that sentence is in the perfect tense and should have used the form “had developed” instead.
On the contrary, I explained, the sentence she quoted isn’t in the perfect tense but in the simple past tense. I then briefly sketched how the perfect tenses work to indicate the completion or “perfection” of an action in relation to a particular event or point in time.
My explanation drew this rejoinder from Miss Mae:
“I couldn’t help but feel that I now understand the perfect tenses better. But am I really right? These are what I have concluded from your grammatical prescriptions: (1) Use the past perfect tense when the action was completed before another action, (2) Use the present perfect tense when it is unknown when the action was completed, and (3) Use the future perfect tense when the action still has to be completed in the future.”
My reply to Miss Mae’s rejoinder:
I’m glad that my column last week enhanced your knowledge of what the perfect tense is, but I’m afraid that your three conclusions about its usage are rather fragmentary and even misleading. Evidently, my quick review of the perfect tense in last week’s column has not been comprehensive enough, so I will now make a full-dress review of that admittedly very challenging grammatical form. I’ll do it more slowly and in more detail this time to make sure that their mechanisms and uses are clearly understood.
In English, the perfect tense is a verb form that indicates that an action or circumstance occurred before another event or point in time, and focuses attention on the outcome of that occurrence rather than on that occurrence itself. This tense has three basic forms: the present perfect, the past perfect, and the future perfect. Grammatically, all three of them use a form of the auxiliary “have” together with the past participle of the verb, but the third (the future perfect) also adds the auxiliary “will” to indicate futurity of the action involved.
Take a look at this present-perfect sentence, for instance: “The lovers have prepared for their wedding.” The focus in this sentence is on the present outcome of the lovers’ preparation, which is the fact that they are now ready to be wed. This is in contrast to the sense of the present-tense sentence “The lovers prepared for their wedding,” which focuses instead on their action of preparing for that wedding. (Give yourself a few moments to understand and internalize that distinction in your mind.)
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the perfect tenses, however, we need to take up two major sources of confusion about them. The first is the use of the word “perfect” in the term “present perfect,” and the second is the use of the term “past particle” for the form that the main verb takes in the perfect tense.
The word “perfect” in “present perfect” strongly implies “being flawless or exact in every detail,” but its intended sense is actually that of a “perfected” or “completed” action at a certain point of time. As to the term “past participle,” it really has nothing to do with the past tense. It just so happens that a verb’s past participle is often exactly the same as its past-tense form; indeed, many grammarians consider “past participle” a misnomer and suggest calling it “perfect participle” instead.
Next week: The uses and workings of the present perfect tense
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