Series: Get To Know English

Grammar terms can be bewildering. To all of us born after grammar lessons were struck from English classes at school, the first time we come into contact with the names of the words and tenses we use to communicate is when and if we decide to learn a second language. When we learn this lexicon, we learn it as it pertains to that new language. Sometimes when we translate grammar terms back into English, it’s a real joy to find not all exist in our mother tongue, and English contains whole other concepts. Or, our languages use the same grammar but in entirely different ways.

In English, the ‘present perfect’ sounds like a gold-star-wearing anti-depressant. However, this grammatical tense gets its name from the Latin word perfectum meaning ‘completed’. So you could say the present perfect tense is the ‘present completed’ tense, but you would only be sort-of correct.

The present perfect looks like this:

  • Have you ever been to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump?”
  • “Yes. I have played many rounds of golf there. At every hole I’ve made a hole-in-one.”

We construct the tense with the conjugated verb have (ie “I have”, “you have”, “she/he/it has” etc) and the ‘past participle’ form of the verb which controls the sentence. The has/have part is called the ‘auxiliary verb’ because it’s helping us know what tense we mean. Some languages use the equivalent of have in their version of the present perfect, while others use a version of the word be. In fact, if you go back to the early modern English of Shakespeare and Tennyson, you can see English using both have and be for the present perfect:

  • “I am become time: destroyer of worlds.”
  • “Mr Trump, you are come here with too little a vote.”

The ‘past participle’ is the third form of a verb. This is easy enough to conjure for a native English speaker: go went been, sing sang sung, bring brought brought, confuse confused confused.

A problem for a student of English is knowing when to use the present perfect and not the past simple.

To illustrate: think about the difference between:

  • “I went to Paris” and “I have been to Paris”
  • “You did your homework” and “You’ve done your homework”

In some cases, adding a word or phrase about time makes the distinction clearer:

  • “I went to Paris last year.” (That’s what happened last year. I did it. It’s over.)
  • “I have been to Paris five times.” (That’s my experience of going to Paris — it has happened five times.)

In other cases, it’s up to the communicator to decide how they want the sentence to relate to ~now~. In other words, how ‘present’ do you want the completed action to sound?

  • “You did your homework, now let’s go party!” (That was then, this is now.)
  • “You’ve done your homework so let’s go party!” (Because of this recent accomplishment, we should neck a few before going out.)

Still confused?

Imagine two people. One has a backpack on, the other one has discarded it on the floor behind them. The first person with the backpack represents the present perfect: something is ‘behind’ them, but it’s still attached. The second person’s bag is more distant. When we choose to use either the present perfect or the past simple, we make an unconscious decision based on feeling of time and relevancy. “I’ve been to Paris” sounds like we view it as a positive achievement or experience that we are happy to carry around with us. “I went to Paris…once…” sounds more dismissive. Consider: (present perfect) “I’ve dyed my hair so many times — hahaha THAT’S JUST WHO I AM I GUESS!” versus (past simple) “I dyed my hair. It was supposed to be blonde. It ended up green.”

The backpack can also represent the other use of the present perfect: an action or state of being that started in the past (behind you), is affecting now (it’s attached to you), and may continue in the future (it’s unknown when you’ll remove it). So we say: “The president has threatened our rights for months” or “They have really bludgeoned the economy” (and will probably keep doing so).

While the present perfect isn’t flawless, it certainly has an essential place in English communication whether we’re cognisant of it or not.


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