Present & Past Perfect in Context

Hear the Lecture

Samples from a Sociology Textbook

The following eight passages are taken from a chapter in a sociology textbook used in introductory courses like those often taken by ESL students when they matriculate into college or university programs in the U.S.  The chapter uses the present perfect more than just these 8 times, but these 8 are enough for us to get started looking at authentic samples to test our understanding of the meaning and use of the present perfect.  It's really one thing to have read through and to understand abstractions about  grammar like we get in grammar references or in published articles.  It's another thing to test our knowledge when we get into looking at some authentic samples.

Please study the section of the lecture on perfect aspect and future time before analyzing these passages.  Those discussions include examples and methods that you need to apply in looking at these authentic samples.

Read each of these passages, and think about the uses of the present and past perfect forms found in them.  Does the information about "framing" from Suh's dissertation help you to understand the choices?  How about the definitions of perfect aspect I discussed in the lecture on the perfects?  How can these samples be used in your ESL/EFL courses or materials?   Maybe not just the samples themselves but how can they provide background to your lessons?

I'm not going to read these passages out loud for you!  You might want to print out a copy to work on your analysis of the use of the present perfect in this authentic academic writing.  So, just print it and go through and see what you find.  

Let's look at the first sample to give you some ideas about how to proceed: I see this pattern: (a) present perfect sets the topic by saying something like "before now in the past we've had reports about wild children." (b) Then that general statement is followed by specific past time information about a boy in France in 1798. (c) Another generalization is made with the present perfect saying something like "in the past other reports like the one just discussed have given information." (d) Then, details are given in simple past tense. It's a very common pattern: introduce the past time topic with the present perfect to set up a period of time that began in the past and continues until now; then give the past time details and specific dates using the simple past tense. That, seems like an excellent model to teach students....a model for how to use present perfect.

Interesting, isn't it?  What patterns do you see?  Please take time to read and to think. This topic is HUGELY important because we need to connect our teaching of present perfect to the ways that the form is used....and to stop all this talking, talking, talking about what it means! Use needs to come first!

Please email me your questions or comments.


Over the centuries, the discovery of feral (wild) children has been reported from time to time.  Supposedly, these children were abandoned or lost by their parents at a very early age and then raised by animals.  In one instance, a feral child, known as the wild boy of Aveyron, was studied by the scientists of his day (Itard 1962).  This boy, who was found in the forests of France in 1798, walked on all fours, and pounced on small animals, devouring them uncooked.  He could not speak, and he gave no indication of feeling the cold.  Other reports of feral children have claimed that on discovery, these children acted like wild animals: they could not speak; they bit, scratched, growled, and walked on all fours; they ate grass, tore ravenously at meat, drank by lapping water; and showed an insensitivity to pain and cold (Malson 1972).


[Text with a photograph:]  Like humans, monkeys also need interaction to thrive.  Those raised in isolation are unable to interact satisfactorily with others.  In this photograph, we see one of the monkeys described in the text. Purposefully frightened by the experimenter, the monkey has taken refuge in the soft terrycloth draped over an artificial "mother."


Anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1972/1995) studied the Ik, a formerly proud nomadic people in northern Uganda whose traditional hunting lands were taken from them by the government.  Devastated by drought, hunger, and starvation, the Ik turned to a form of extreme individualism in which selfishness, emotional numbness, and lack of concern for others reign supreme.  The pursuit of food has become the only good, with society replaced by a passionless, numbed association of individuals.  

Imagine, for a moment, that you were born into the Ik tribe.  After your first three or four years of life, you are pushed out of the hut.  From then on, you are on your own.  You can sleep in the village courtyard or take shelter, such as you can, against the stockade.  With permission, you can sit in the door-way of your parent's house, but you may not lie down or sleep there.  

There is no school.  No church.  Nothing from this point in your life that even comes close to what we call family.  You join a group of children aged 3 to 7. The weakest are soon thinned out, for only the strongest survive.  Later, you join a band of 8- to 12-year olds.  At 12 or 13, you split off by yourself.  

Socialization usually involves learning some aspect of life by what you see going on around you.  But here you see coldness at the center of life.  The men hunt, but game is scarce.  If they get anything, they refuse to bring it back to their families, saying, "Each one of them is out seeing what he can get for him self.  Do you think they will bring any back for me?"  

You also see cruelty at the center of life.  When blind Lo'ono trips and rolls to the bottom of the ravine, the adults laugh as she lies on her back, her arms and legs thrashing feebly.  When Lolim begs his son to let him in, pleading that he is going to die in a few hours, Longoli drives him away.  Lolim dies alone. 

The children learn their lesson well: selfishness is good, the survival of the individual paramount.  But the children add a childish glee to the adults' dispassionate coldness.  When blind Lolim took ill, the children would dance and tease him, kneeling in front of him and laughing as he fell.  His grandson would creep up and with a pair of sticks drum a beat on the old man's bald head.  

Then there was Adupa, who managed, for a while, to keep a sense of awe of life.  When Adupa found food, she would hold it in her hand, looking at it with wonder and delight.  As she would raise her hand to her mouth, the other children would jump on her, laughing as they beat her.


With more mothers working for wages today than ever before, day care has become a significant agent of socialization in Western, industrialized societies.  Concerns about its effects have propelled day care into the center of controversy.  Researchers find that the effects of day care, at least in the United States, largely depend on the child's background (Scarr and Eisenberg 1993).  Children from poverty-stricken backgrounds, as well as those from dysfunctional homes (such as alcoholic, inept, or abusive parents), appear to benefit from day care.  For example, the language skills of children from low-income homes increase.  In contrast, day care may slow these skills in middle-class children, who would have received more intellectual stimulation at home.  As you would expect, much depends on the quality of day care: high-quality day care (safe, small numbers, warm interaction, with low turnover of a trained staff) benefits children, while low-quality care has negative effects.  

At this point, however, findings are preliminary, many even contradictory.  For example, some studies show that children in day care are more cooperative and secure, while others show that they are more aggressive and insecure.  Perhaps the fairest summary of current knowledge is that children from stable families receive no clear benefit or detriment from day care, and that children in poverty and from dysfunctional families benefit from quality day care.  

Obviously, we need better studies.  We need to match children by age and family background and compare those in day care with those who stay home or who are cared for by relatives and friends. And in order to compare results, we also need solid measures of the "quality" of day care - as well as the "quality" of home care.


[Text with a photograph associated with the childcare section]:  With the widespread employment of both mothers and fathers, day care has become a major concern. Many U.S. firms are finding that offering child care is more than a kind gesture to employees - it benefits the corporation's bottom line by reducing employee absenteeism and turnover.

[with past perfect as well as present perfect]

In some sports the "male values" of competition and rough physical contact, akin to violence, are exalted, and those who play these sports learn to be "real men."  Even if they don't play a sport, boys and men who intensely follow sports are openly affirming male cultural values and displaying their own masculinity.  Sociologist Michael Messner (1990) interviewed former male professional athletes and other men for whom sports provided a central identity during and after high school.  Usually the father, an older brother, or an uncle had encouraged the boy to develop his athletic abilities, or had served as a role model for the boy's later success.  A former professional football player, whose two older brothers had gained wide reputations for sports, said:

My brothers were role models.  I wanted to prove - especially to my brothers - that I had heart, you know, that I was a man. And as I got older, I got better and I began to look around me and see, well hey!  I'm competitive with these guys, even though I'm younger, you know?
Success at sports, then, brings recognition from others - and to the self - that one has achieved manly characteristics.  This same football player also said,
And then of course all the compliments come - and I began to notice a change, even in my parents - especially in my father - he was proud of that, and that was very important to me.  He was extremely important. He showed me more affection, now that I think of it.
In other words, success at sports brought recognition, not only from a community of peers, but as Messner found, sometimes from an emotionally distant father, who warmed up at his son's success.  


The mass media, forms of communication directed to large audiences, also socialize us.  Radio, television, newspapers, and magazines do not merely entertain us; as already noted concerning gender socialization, they also shape our attitudes, values, and other basic orientations to life.  

Television has become the dominant medium, and children in the United States spend more time in front of a television than they do in school (Statistical Abstract 1994: Table 884; Volti 1995:196).  Because children will sit transfixed for hours before its dancing images, many parents even use television as an electronic babysitter - although the values presented on it may conflict with their own.  

Since most U.S. children are exposed to so much television, it is not surprising that many have become concerned about the content of what children see.  As Joshua Meyrowitz (1984) points out, to use television as an electronic babysitter is equivalent to a broad social decision to allow young children to be present at wars and funerals, courtships and seductions, criminal plots and cocktail parties. Television exposes children to many topics and behaviors that adults have spent several centuries trying to keep hidden from them.

[with past perfect as well as present perfect]

Violence on television is a special concern.  By the age of 18, the average U.S. adolescent has watched about 18,000 people being strangled, smothered, stabbed, shot, poisoned, blown up, drowned, run over, beaten to death, or otherwise ingeniously done in (Volti 1995) and another 160,000 rapes, armed robberies, and assaults (Comstock and Strasburger 1990).  

The big question, of course, is, What effects does televised violence have on its viewers?  After probing this question for decades, researchers came up with mixed results.  Then, in the 1980s, they found a unique opportunity to help determine the answer.  Two nearby Canadian towns were similar in size, race, and social class, but one had television (called "MultiTel"), and the other did not (called "NoTel").  The researchers tested the children and found that NoTel's children were less aggressive, both physically and verbally.  Two years after NoTel began to receive television, the researchers again measured the children.  NoTel's children had become just as aggressive as the children in MultiTel (Williams 1986).

That's All Folks!