In addition to the three main tenses of present, past, and future, the English language allows us to make three statements about accomplished facts. We use one of the three perfect tenses to show an action that has taken place as of the present time or is continuing in the present time (present-perfect tense), that had taken place as of a past time (past-perfect tense), or that will have taken place as of a future time (future-perfect tense).
We form the perfect tenses by using the verb to have as an auxiliary verb and adding the past participle of the main verb.
Present-Perfect Tense, Defined
We form the present-perfect tense by using the present tense of have (has or have) and adding the past participle of the main verb.
The present-perfect tense shows a connection with the past and a connection with the present. Its use is appropriate in three situations: (1) to show experience, (2) to show a change or new information, and (3) to show a continuing action or state.
1. to show experience from something that happened or didn’t happen in the past
The event was in the past; you have experience from it or knowledge of it. We don’t care when it happened or didn’t happen. You know it happened or didn’t happen, and you have experience from it.
She has seen Bridget Jones’s Diary. He has never eaten escargot.
2. to show a change or new information
Here the present is the opposite of the past. Yesterday, the kidnapper was free; today he is in custody. Yesterday, was the price of gas lower? Is it higher today?
I have worked on this website for several years. How long have you known Fred?
Remember the three conditions: (1) to show experience, (2) to show a change where the present is the opposite of the past, and (3) to show a continuing action or state that started in the past. If one of these conditions doesn’t persist, then the present-perfect tense is incorrectly used.
Use of for or since with the Present-Perfect Tense
You’ll often use the words for or since with the present-perfect tense. The word for will establish a duration of time, since an identified moment when the action or state began. Take a look:
1. The word for establishes a duration of time.
He has practiced medicine for 25 years. She hasn’t called for a long time.
I have been here since 9 o’clock. She has worked for that law firm since leaving law school.
Past-Perfect Tense, Defined
We form the past-perfect tense by taking the past tense of have (had) and adding the past participle of the main verb. The past perfect is also called the pluperfect tense.
The past perfect shows what’s called the remote past. Or it shows a past within a past. The regular past tense will establish a moment in the past. For example, you might use the past tense and say, “When I arrived at her house ….” Then you would switch to the past-perfect tense to show that something happened before you arrived.
When I arrived at her house, she had finished dinner.
The past-perfect tense does not require other words showing an established past, words such as when I arrived at her house. The past perfect will move the time back further; it will show a more remote past. Consider the following:
I wasn’t thirsty. I had just drunk a Perrier. We were hungry. We hadn’t eaten for six hours.
Past Perfect in Indirect Quotations
We often use the past-perfect tense when we report on the speech of others or of ourselves. Watch for the words told, said, explained, thought, wondered, and others.
Suppose as a direct quotation, a woman says, “The plane has left.” Or suppose a man says, “I wonder if I have been there before.” When reporting these quotations as indirect speech, writers use the past perfect. Notice that the tense moves back from the present perfect (has left, have been) to the past perfect (had left, had been):
Future-Perfect Tense, Defined
The future-perfect tense is formed by taking the future tense of have (will have) and adding the past participle of the main verb.
The future-perfect tense refers to an action that will be completed at some definite time in the future. Ironically, it expresses a past in the future. That is, the future-perfect tense expresses an action or state taking place before another action or time period in the future.
For example, suppose you will arrive at the airport at 10:15 a.m. Suppose the plane will leave at 10:00 a.m. Thus:
Other examples include:
You may call me at my office tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. I will have arrived by then. They will be exhausted when they land tomorrow. They will not have slept for many hours.
In my writing courses, students sometimes contend that the perfect tenses don’t say anything different. For example, they’ll argue that I have decided doesn’t say anything different from I decided. Or they’ll say that I had decided differs not one bit from I decided. They’re wrong, of course, else they’d be teaching the course.
The perfect tenses show an accomplished fact in relation to a particular point in time in the present, the past, or the future. Read this sentence and you’ll see that you cannot express the thought in any other way:
When I arrived, he had finished his dinner.
When I arrived, he finished his dinner.
This latter statement suggests, or could suggest, that after I arrived, he finished his dinner, whereas the past-perfect tense makes it plain that by the time I got there he had already finished his dinner.
So the teacher who advised one of my students never to put the word had in front of a verb just didn’t know what she was talking about. With a single utterance, she abolished the past-perfect tense.
Forming the Perfect Tenses
As noted above in the discussion of past participles, you form the perfect tenses by conjugating the verb to have and adding the past participle of the verb.
Thus, the three perfect tenses (in first-person singular) look like this:
|I have decided to retire.
|Past-Perfect Tense (Pluperfect)
|I had decided to retire.
|I will have decided to retire.
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