Present perfect tense
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The present perfect tense is a perfect tense used to express action that has been completed with respect to the present. (The word perfect in its name refers to the idea of completion—of being now finished—rather than to perfection in the sense of "no flaws".) "I have finished" is an example of the present perfect. The present perfect is a compound tense in English (and in many other languages), meaning that it is formed by combining an auxiliary verb with the main verb. For example, in modern English, it is formed by combining a present-tense form of the auxiliary verb "to have" with the past participle of the main verb. In the above example, "have" is the auxiliary verb, whereas the past participle "finished" is the main verb. The two verbs are sometimes labeled "V1" and "V2" in grammar instruction.
Usage in English
In English, the present perfect has perfect aspect, which means that it is used to refer to a subject's past actions or states while keeping the subject in a present state of reference or in a present state of mind. Therefore, in English, the following logic helps to understand the tense: Think of the words in the construction separately: "have" (or "has") is in the present, and the past participle is in the past. For example, "I have gone to the cinema" implies that the subject has completed a certain action (this is what "gone to the cinema" relates), but that the subject is, in a sense, "holding" or "possessing" that completed action in the present time (this is what "I have" relates to). In other words, the subject is in a current state (now), and a past action that the subject has done or a past state that the subject has been in, is being referred to from the current state of the subject, which is the present time. This differs from the simple past tense, i.e., "I went to the cinema", which implies only that an action happened, with the subject having no relationship at all to the present.
- The boy saw the car. (Emphasis is on the fact that the boy saw the car.)
- The boy has seen the car. (Emphasis is on the present state of the boy, resulting from the fact that he saw the car.)
- I left Brazil eight years ago.
- I have left Brazil for now.
In summary, both the present perfect tense and simple past tense are used for past actions or states, but the present perfect describes the present state of the subject as a result of a past action or state (i.e., the subject is being talked about in the present), whereas the simple past describes solely a past action or state of the subject (i.e., the subject is being talked about in the past).
Practical application of the above
The choice of the present perfect or the simple past is often suggested by context.
Example 1:How does John feel about the test?John is nervous about his test, but he has prepared, so I think he'll do fine.
Example 2:What did John do last night?Last night, John watched some TV and prepared for the test.
Notice that in example 1, we're talking about something happening in the present, but it's necessary to mention something that happened in the past.
In example 2, we're telling a story about the past.
Special case: have got
The construction have got is a special case in English's use of the
to have + past participle pattern. In both British and American usage, it most often signifies present aspect. For example, I've got a ticket equals I have a ticket aspectually. In British English, got is the normal past participle of to get, so to have got serves double duty (present aspect or perfect aspect), whereas in American English, because gotten is the normal past participle of to get, to have got is more thoroughly restricted to present aspect. Compare American I've got money (=I have money) to I've gotten money (="I've received money at some point or points in the past").
The fact that the verb to get is also a special case in other ways is never far from mind when pondering the above examples. It serves as a copula more often than any other verb except to be, and as an auxiliary more often than any other verbs except to be and to have. When an English speaker's mind hears got or gotten, it is primed to interpret it in any of various senses and to expect various follow-ons: present-aspect possession (I've got money), perfect-aspect reception (I've gotten money), perfect-aspect copula (I've gotten tired of waiting), or perfective-aspect passive voice (I got robbed).
Many English teachers and course writers, like Sue Swift and Scott Thornbury, argue that have got is simply the present perfect of the verb to get. Grammar is about structure, morphology and syntax, and therefore if a verb looks like a present perfect, changes like a present perfect (in its question and negative forms), and even conveys meaning in the same way a present perfect would, then a grammarian must call it a present perfect.
The present perfect is a tense we use when we are interested in the present result of the action, rather than the action itself. For example:
I've locked the door. (meaning The door is locked)
I've been to Paris. (meaning I am familiar with Paris)
Usage in other languages
In many European languages, including standard German, French and Italian, the present perfect usually does not convey perfect aspect, but rather perfective aspect. In these languages, it has usurped the role of the simple past (i.e. preterite) in spoken language, and the simple past is now really only used in formal written language and literature. (In standard English, by contrast, the present perfect (perfect aspect) and simple past (perfective aspect) are kept distinct.)
In modern German, the present perfect is usually used with perfective aspect, and colloquially usually replaces the simple past, although the simple past still is frequently used in non-colloquial and/or narrative registers. For this reason, the present perfect is often called in German the "conversational past", while the simple past is often called the "narrative past".
In French, the term passé composé (literally "compound past") is the standard name for the present perfect tense (even though the past perfect (plus-que-parfait) is also logically a compound past tense). The passé composé has perfective, not perfect, aspect. The French simple past is analogous to the German simple past in that it has been partially displaced by the compound past and relegated to narrative usage; but in French the displacement is greater, to the point that the simple past sounds archaic (whereas in German it merely sounds narrative).
Various auxiliaries: to have and to be
In modern English, the auxiliary verb for forming the present perfect tense is always to have.
- I have eaten
- You have gone
- He has arrived
In many other European languages, usually the equivalent of to have (e.g., German haben, French avoir) is also used to form the present perfect (or their equivalent of the present perfect) for most verbs. However, the equivalent of to be (e.g., German sein, French être) serves as the auxiliary for some verbs instead. Generally, the verbs that take to be as auxiliary are intransitive verbs denoting motion or change of state (e.g., to arrive, to go, to fall).
In standard French, any verb being used reflexively takes être ("to be") as auxiliary in compound past tenses (passé composé, plus-que-parfait, passé antérieur, futur antérieur). In addition, a small set of about 20 non-reflexive verbs also use être as its auxiliary.
- J'ai mangé (I have eaten)
- Tu es venu(e) (You have come, literally you are come.)
- Nous sommes arrivé(e)s (We have arrived, literally we are arrived.)
- Vous vous êtes levé(e)(s) (You have gotten up, reflexive verb,literally you are gotten up.)
Standard Spanish is like English in that haber is always auxiliary regardless of reflexive voice and regardless of the intransitive-+-motion idea.In Spanish, the present perfect is almost always haber + the past participle form of the verb.
- Ich habe gegessen (I have eaten)
- Du bist gekommen (You have come, literally you are come.)
- Sie sind gefallen (They have fallen, literally they are fallen.)
- Sie ist geschwommen (She has swum, literally, she is swum.)
- Du hast dich beeilt (You have hurried, literally You have yourself hurried)
English in past centuries included the intransitive-+-motion idea and thus used to be as auxiliary for the present perfect forms of many of the same verbs as other European languages today. This usage has practically disappeared from Modern English. Examples of this conjugation can still be found in older texts:
Madam, the Lady Valeria is come to visit you.The Tragedy of Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
"Your family is perfectly well," said Mr. Kirwin, with gentleness; "and some one, a friend, is come to visit you."Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Pillars are fallen at thy feet,Fanes quiver in the air,A prostrate city is thy seat,And thou alone art there.
Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage by Lydia Maria Child
I am come in sorrow.