Present perfect



The present perfect is easily used when you know that it refers to an action that starts in the past and continues in the present, or when you have adverbs such as yet, ever, already, etc., that help you identify the use of the tense.

However, there are cases when the use is very difficult to explain to the students, that is when the time is unspecified. Is there an easy to way to help our students to know when and how to use this verb tense?



Yes, the use of the present perfect when there is no time adverbial to give a clue is difficult to explain to learners. Nevertheless, the present perfect is very often used without any expression of time, and must be understood on its own merits.

Unlike the simple past, which is “disconnected” from the present, the present perfect is a present tense, but it has perfect aspect. A grammarian once observed that the present perfect is “a way of looking at the past without leaving the present.” Someone else has called it a “retrospective present.”

The present perfect is always connected in some way with the moment of speaking. It usually refers to something that took place at an unspecified time before now, or to a state or activity that started in the past and continued to the present, but it always has relevance to the present. Often it focuses on the present consequences of a past act.

The following explanation is loosely based on Chapter Three in Geoffrey Leach, Meaning and the English Verb, 2nd ed. (Longman, 1987). Some of the uses of the present perfect specified below do require a time expression, while others do not. These four uses are characteristic of British English and of spoken American English. A great many speakers of American English use the simple past in some of these cases; these are marked with the past forms sometimes used by American speakers.

The present perfect has four different uses:

1. State leading to the present (with state verbs; needs a time adverbial)

(a) She’s known for a long time that he’s not really her type.
(b) I’ve craved chocolate all my life.

My in-laws have always thought that I’m a genius.

The present perfect in (a), (b), and (c) indicates that all these states are still in effect.

2. Indefinite past event (with event verbs)

(d) Have you met the new manager? (American English could be: Did you meet…)
(e) What have you done to your hair? (What did you do…)
(f) The furnace has started making funny noises. (The furnace started…)
(g) I’ve managed both large and small offices. (I know how to do both.)

I’ve tasted rattlesnake meat; have you? (I know how it tastes.)

These last two examples—sentences (g) and (h)—are sometimes called the “perfect of experience.” The grammatical subject now “possesses” the experience.

3. Habit in a period leading to the present (with event and activity verbs; often needs a time adverbial)

(i) Maria has nagged him constantly [ever since they were married].
(j) You've helped me keep my sanity [during this difficult time].

It has snowed on my birthday more often than not.

All these actions in (i), (j), and (k) have occurred from time to time or continually over a period of time leading to and connected to the present.

4. Resultative past (with event or activity verbs)

(l) The mail has arrived. (It’s now here.)
(m) You’ve ruined my day! (My day is ruined.)

The roads have been made impassable by the snow. (They can’t be used.)

This use—as in sentences (l), (m), and (n)—is more difficult to grasp, since it focuses not on the events but on the present consequences of the events. It is about the “aftermath” of the actions.

Marilyn Martin

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