A full-dress review of the perfect tenses

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IN a rejoinder to my column that made a quick review of the perfect tenses (“What a sentence needs to take a true perfect tense,” December 5), Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, made three conclusions about their usage that were rather fragmentary. I therefore started a full-dress review of the perfect tenses last week, emphasizing that they (a) indicate that an action or circumstance occurred before another event or point in time, and (b) focus attention on the outcome of that occurrence rather than on that occurrence itself.

One of Miss Mae’s slippery conclusions was that the present perfect tense is used “when it is unknown when the action was completed.” To put that conclusion in the proper perspective, let’s now take up the specific uses and workings of the present perfect.

Conceptually, the present perfect tense is used to refer to an event that occurred in an unspecified time in the past, in which the action has been completed but the time period is notor is of indefinite duration. The present perfect therefore cannot be used to refer to a specific past time—only to an unspecified or indefinite one.

Thus, it is incorrect to construct sentences like “The war-torn country has taken stringent austerity measures a year ago” or “Two feuding presidential candidates have debased Philippine politics severely last week.” The time frames of  “a year ago” and “last week”being both specific and definite, they fail to satisfy the requirement of the present perfect.


In those two sentences, the present perfect will work only if “a year ago” and “last week” are dropped: “The war-torn country has taken stringent austerity measures.” “Two feuding presidential candidates have debased Philippine politics severely.” The first sentence is now silent about exactly when the country took austerity measures, and the other about exactly when the two candidates debased Philippine politics.

The present perfect works in at least six specific ways to define events and occurrences as they unfold in time, as follows:

(a) To express a state or condition that began in the past and leads up to and including the present: “Congress has stalled on the Bangsamoro bill for months.” “The detained murder suspect has remained silent for days.” “The defenders have kept their resistance for years.”

(b) To express habitual or continued action: “She has worn high heels since eighteen.” “He has flouted conventions all through college.” “They have sworn to crush infidel seven at the cost of their lives.”

(c) To indicate events occurring at an indefinite time in the past (used with the adverbs “ever,” “never,” and “before”): “Have you ever been to Geneva?” “Some women have never gone out of their own villages.” “He denies that he has courted that starlet before.”

(d) To indicate that an action happened only recently (used in tandem with the adverb “just”): “The boyhas just finishedeating breakfast.” “We have just watched a real shouting match on TV.”

(e) To indicate that an action happened more than once, but it’s not important or necessary to know exactly when: “I have toured Europe fourtimes.” “He has rewritten his unpublished novel 15 times.”

(f) To indicate that something that happened in the past still continues to influence the present: “She has contemplatedon having a new hairdo every day this week.” “Traffic jams have brought the city to a standstill, so the city council has intensified its search for better ways of dealing with the problem.”

The present perfect gives us the power to better comprehend the conditions of the moment by marking them in relation to things that took place before, thus intensifying our perception of time as well as the reality of occurrences and events.

Next week:The uses and workings of the past perfect tense

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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2 Comments

  1. Am i the first person to ever comment on Mr. Carillo’s article ? Surely there must be a school somewhere that will compel the students to read lessons like this.

    • My experience is that when the grammar discussions are clear and no grievous error crops up, there will hardly be any comment or question. It’s only when controversial or debatable topics are discussed that readers see fit to respond in substantial numbers. Still, FYI, I agree with your idea that the grammar lessons taken up here need to be shared as widely as possible among users and learners of English.