Present and Past Perfect

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Aspect Defined

Aspect is a concept that we use to talk about a special feature of verb meaning.  The idea is that verbs are not just about time (past, present, future) but about other kinds of meanings, too.  One type of aspectual meaning involves a sense of completion--or a lack of completion.  For example, "I'm typing this information right now" uses the present progressive form which combines present tense with progressive aspect.  The meaning is that the typing is not finished.  I'm telling you that the typing is in progress.  So, the present progressive verb phrase combines both "present time" and "lack of completion."

Sometimes the verb means something about times in relationship to each other--that meaning involves perfect aspect, one of the most difficult of grammar concepts for us to explain and for our students to learn.

Present and Past Perfect Verb Phrases

We use verbs in the perfect forms to put two times in relationship to each other, saying that one of the times is before the other time.  That concept seems to be  easiest to grasp in examples with past perfect: 

In the Cafeteria

Maria:  Why are you looking so unhappy?

Martha:  When I got to the library to renew this book, I had left my purse in the office.  No library card, no book, wasted time.

That is, one action is put into relationship to a second action; the first thing that happened was Martha left her purse in the office and the second thing was that she got to the library before she realized she didn't have her purse with her. 

Times in relationships--that's the basic purpose for the perfect aspect forms.  Perfect aspect is used to indicate that one thing is prior to another thing.  Or one time or time period is prior to another time or time period.

Present perfect has a similar function to past perfect; they are both about establishing time relationships with one thing prior to another thing.  When we use the present perfect, we put a past time in a relationship with the present.  In effect, we say "before now something happened."  The two times are (1) now and (2) before now in the past.  So, really the present perfect is about past time.  When we use it we are taking a special angle on the past.  In the following conversation, Maria introduces a topic by using the present perfect to say "anytime before now."  Martha answers in a similar fashion.  Then, Maria tries another topic.  This time, Martha answers with simple past tense--and a change in perspective to a focus on a completed past time event.  This pattern is a very common one in English as we will see.  Present perfect introduces a topic; simple past is used to communicate the past time details about that topic.

In the Cafeteria

Maria:  Have you ever taken a sociology course?

Martha:  No, I haven't.  Not yet. 

Maria: What about anthropology? Have you ever taken any of their courses?

Martha:  Yep.  Last summer, I took the graduate course on health practices around the world. 

More on the Present Perfect

Let's start with a definition:

Definition of The Present Perfect

The present perfect is used to refer to a situation set at some indefinite time within a period beginning in the past and leading up to the present.

There seem to be three major features to this definition.


A situation... There can be anywhere from 1 event to numerous events to continuous happenings or states of being.  Notice these examples,

I have been to Paris only 1 time.

I have been to San Franciso at least 5 times.

I have been to the beach about a zillion times.

He's always been a cheerful person.

She's always lived in Ohio.

set at some indefinite time Past time is involved.  But a vague past time--"before now."  Notice that this sentence doesn't get specific about when I was in Paris: It means "before now--in my life sometime."

I've been to Paris only once.

within a period beginning in the past and leading up to the present...there must be a connection to the present Here's the time relationship part.  The past time is a period of time that (a) starts at some past time point and (b) continues up to right now.

I've been to Paris only once.

When does the time period start?  Well, with my birth, I suppose. 

When does the time period end?  Right now--at the moment of writing.

More on the Past Perfect

Before we think about teaching the perfect verb forms, we need to consider four points about the past perfect.

First, the past perfect is rarely required.  Usually, the simple past tense will work just fine for the meaning, and past perfect is used to make the meaning clearer or more emphatic.  Look at this example:

They had moved into the house before the baby was born.
The past perfect is not required grammatically.  It is not an error to use the simple past--the simple past is just fine unless there is some reason to emphasize the first action was completed before the second action.  Many of our students have worked so hard to learn to use past perfect that they think it must be used.  In fact, ESL/EFL students probably use more past perfect forms than native speakers.
They moved into the house before the baby was born.
Second, past perfect is grammatically required in hypothetical statements like the following:
If they had moved into the house before the baby was born, the move would have been easier.
Third, past perfect is often used in the more formal versions of English in indirect speech:
Direct quotation: "I have lived here for 15 years."

Indirect quotation: She said that she had lived here for 15 years.

However, the change for indirect quotation is not required--and is actually a bit ambiguous since it is no longer clear that she still lives here.

Fourth, here is a final use of past perfect to notice.  In passages like the following, the past perfect is used to mark the end of a narrative sequence--to give dramatic focus to a closing statement that presents the goal or purpose for the actions described.  The verb is often "had begun" or "had started" or "had commensed" or some similar indication of a beginning point. 

The teams were on the field.  The officials placed the ball on the ground.  A whistle sounded.  The national championship had begun.
Teaching Issues

Some of the worst teaching that I've ever done has been about the present perfect.  I talked and talked about abstractions of meaning.  My students generally tried to understand but they didn't start using the form correctly.  I think now that the mistake I was making was to give some single sentence examples and to explain "dictionary" meanings without showing the students how to use present perfect.

Research has shown that the present perfect is used often as a framing device to introduce a topic or to indicate a shift within a topic.  The dissertation that I mention in the lecture on future time (Suh, 1992) analyzes this use of the present perfect.  An earlier and still helpful analysis is in Allen's excellent 1966 book on the Verb system of present-day American English.  Allen's discussion shows that the present perfect is often used to start a discussion that then switches to simple past tense:

A Conversation

Pat: Have you ever been to Vancouver?

Maria:  Yes, I was there in 1997.  I went to a conference and then my family joined me to go skiing.  Have you ever been there?

Pat:  Yes, I was at the TESOL meeting there a number of years go. 


As we keep learning....context is the controlling factor. We need to put the use of present perfect and past perfect into appropriate contexts to help students learn how to use them appropriately for different types of communication.


Allen, R. L. (1966). Verb system of present-day American English. The Hague: Mouton.

Suh, K. H. (1992). A discourse analysis of the English tense-aspect-modality system.  Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Applied Linguistics, University of California Los Angeles.