Tuesday October 16, 2012
Present and perfect tenses
By FADZILAH AMIN
Are you confused by the differences between past tense, present perfect tense and past perfect tense? Then read on.
AMONG the most common questions asked by readers of MOE’s Question and Answer section (June 2001 – Feb 2012) were questions to do with present and past perfect tenses in English.
I remember in particular those readers who were puzzled and almost alarmed by the past perfect verb “had had”. What on earth did it mean? Was there a typing error?
I have by now explained so many times that a perfect tense consists of the appropriate form of the verb “have” as an auxiliary verb, plus the past participle of the main verb. Also, that “have” can also be a main verb. However, there are still questions about when one should use the present perfect or the past perfect tense.
Reader Ahmad Nafis, for example, looked up the meaning of the word “relic” in OALD and found the following definition: “an object, a tradition, etc that has survived from a period of time that no longer exists.”
He wanted to know why the present perfect “has survived” is used, and added: “Isn’t it true that we only use the present perfect for an action whose effect is still felt at the moment? But it no longer exists. Should we use the past tense instead?”
It seems to me that the OALD’s definition is unnecessarily long, and can give rise to misunderstanding. It uses “a period of time that no longer exists” instead of “the past” or “an earlier time”, thus leading Ahmad Nafis to think that what no longer exists is not “the period of time”, but the effect of the action expressed by the verb “survive”.
“Survive” is in fact not a verb expressing action, but one expressing a state of continuing to live or exist. Thus in using “has survived”, the OALD is saying that a relic is an object or tradition, etc that still continues to exist at the present time.
It would be true to say that the present perfect is used to denote a situation (including both action and state) that is still relevant or of interest at the present time or is seen from the perspective of the present. However, to describe in more detail when the present perfect is used, we can say that it is used for:
1. a situation that began in the past and continues to the present;
2. a situation that existed or happened at an unspecified time before the present; and
3. a possible situation in the future (in a clause beginning with “when” or “after”).
The OALD sentence defining “relic” is an example of 1). A simplified version of it would read: “A relic is an object, a tradition, etc that has survived from the past.” This means that a relic still continues to the present, like the Stadhuys (the red building) in Malacca town, for instance, which is a relic of Dutch rule there.
Also, when someone says: “I have lived in this house for 30 years.” the sentence means that he started living in the house 30 years ago and still continues to live there.
Some examples of the use of this tense in situation 2) are: “I have been to Japan.” and “She has received payment for her work.” In this use of the present perfect, a time must not be specified, because the simple past tense must be used when a time is specified. For example, we say: “I went to Japan last year.” or “She received payment for her work yesterday.”
Finally, here are some examples of its use in situation 3): “I will help you when/after I have finished my work.” and “Please water the plants when/after you have done your homework.”
In order to emphasise the duration of situation 1), a present perfect continuous verb is used, formed by adding “has/have been” to the –ing form of the main verb. Some examples of these are: “She has been working hard for several days.” and “What have you been doing all this time?”
The past perfect differs from the present perfect, not only because it expresses things from the perspective of the past, but also because a specific time can be used with it. That is why someone has neatly described it as “the past tense of the past tense.” Take this sentence for example, from Somerset Maugham’s The Lotus Eater:
Though middle-aged now and portly, she had still traces of the wonderful beauty that thirty years before had driven artists to paint so many bad portraits of her.
The sentence describes the woman as she was at a time in the past, using the simple past tense “had” for that; but that time is distinguished from an even earlier time in the past, through the use of the past perfect tense “had driven”. The earlier time, when her beauty had driven artists to paint her is specified as being 30 years before she was described in the sentence.
We can’t do this with the present perfect tense. The sentence, when converted to the present tense, would not use the present perfect tense after the time reference “thirty years before”. It would use the simple past tense “drove”:
Though middle-aged now and portly, she has still traces of the wonderful beauty that thirty years before drove artists to paint so many bad portraits of her.
The past perfect tense is also used when the earlier time is unspecified. Here is an example from the same short story:
He began to tell me all about Tiberius. Well . . . I had read histories of the Early Roman Empire, so there was nothing very new to me in what he said.
The narrator’s reading of the Early Roman Empire happened before the other person told him about Tiberius. That is why the past perfect “had read” is used, although no time is specified.
Very often, when speaking about two past events, we need not use the past perfect at all. That is when the sequence of events is clear.
Reader Ng Huang Jiang asked me whether to use the simple past or the past perfect tense as the second verb in this sentence:
“Yesterday I bought a new watch as my old one (was stolen/had been stolen).”
In this sentence, the sequence of events is clear. The speaker says that he bought a new watch because his old one was stolen. So the theft occurred before the purchase. In that case it is all right to use the simple past tense of both verbs:
“Yesterday I bought a new watch as my old one was stolen.”
However, it is also possible to use the past perfect tense of the second verb if you want to make your meaning doubly clear:
“Yesterday I bought a new watch as my old one had been stolen.”
Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. She believes we learn most when trying to teach others.
Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at email@example.com