Understanding the Perfect Tenses

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John ColtEnglish
September 1, 2017
709
8 minutes
In this post you will learn about the connection between the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses, and how they differ from other tenses.


Have (not) / Had (not) / Will (not) have

The present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses all do basically the same thing.

  • The present perfect is used to describe present circumstances with reference to prior events
  • The past perfect is used to describe past circumstances with reference to prior events
  • The future perfect is used to describe future circumstances with reference to prior events.

Example 1a. (Present Perfect)
Imagine that you gave up smoking on Monday. Today is Wednesday. You can describe your present circumstances using the present perfect, like this:

  • I have not smoked for two days.
Now imagine another day has passed. It is now Thursday. You can describe your present circumstances using the present perfect, like this:

  • I have not smoked for three days.

Example 1b.(Past Perfect)
Imagine the same scenario. On Monday you gave up smoking; today is Wednesday. You can describe Tuesday’s circumstances using the past perfect, like this:

  • Yesterday I had not smoked for one day.
Now imagine another day has passed. It is now Thursday. You can describe yesterday’s circumstances using the past perfect, like this:

  • On Wednesday I had not smoked for two days.

Example 1c. (Future Perfect)
Again, imagine you gave up smoking on Monday. Today is Wednesday. You can describe tomorrow’s (predicted) circumstances using the future perfect, like this:

  • On Thursday I will not have smoked for three days.

Now imagine another day has passed. It is now Thursday. You can describe Friday’s circumstances using the future perfect, like this:

  • Tomorrow I will not have smoked for four days.

Example 2a. (Future Perfect)
Imagine that you have agreed to meet a friend at a pub at 7.30 pm. Your friend can only meet you for 30 minutes as she has an important appointment at 8.10 pm.

You are running late. The time now is 7.25 pm and you are still at work, about to leave. You have tried calling your friend but you cannot get through to her. You know that she will not be able to wait long for you. You look at your watch and say to yourself:

  • When I get to the pub my friend will have left.
(‘get to the pub’ = future circumstances / ‘my friend will have left’ = prior event)


Example 2b. (Present Perfect)
Although you feel sure that you will miss your friend, you go to the pub in the hope of meeting her.

Now you are at the pub. The time is 8 pm. You look around but you cannot see your friend. You say to yourself:

  • My friend has left.
Note: By saying ‘my friend has left’ you are not describing a prior event; you are describing your present circumstances. You are in effect saying ‘I am alone; my friend is not here.’

Example 2c. (Past Perfect)
Realising that you have missed your friend you go straight home.

Now you are at home. The time is 10 pm. You call your friend and she picks up. You say to her,

  • When I got to the pub you had left.
(‘when I got to the pub’ = past circumstances / ‘you had left’ = prior event)


Present Perfect vs. Past Simple

As you have learned, the present perfect tense is used to describe current circumstances with reference to prior events. In contrast, the past simple is used simply to describe past events.

Example 1.
a. I smoked my last cigarette on Monday.
b. I have not smoked a cigarette in two days.

Although both sentences convey essentially the same information, there is a subtle difference. Sentence a is simply a description of a past event; sentence b is a description of present circumstances.

Another way of understanding the difference is that the past simple tense is used to talk about finished time (i.e. the past) while the present perfect is used to talk about unfinished time (i.e. present circumstances)

Example 2a.
a. I drank two cups of coffee this morning.
b. I have drunk two cups of coffee this morning.

In both sentences we are talking about ‘this morning’. The difference is that in sentence a ‘this morning’ is finished, while in sentence b ‘this morning’ is still going. In other words, sentence a can be used during the afternoon or evening, while sentence b can only be used during the morning.

Example 2b.
a. I am drinking a cup of coffee.
b. I have drunk a cup of coffee this morning.

Sentence a uses the present continuous because the action of drinking coffee is happening now. In sentence b the action of drinking coffee is in the past but the time-period (this morning) is still going.

('This morning' = present circumstances / 'I have drunk a cup of coffee' = past event)

Example 2c.
a. I have started a new job yesterday.
b.I have started a new job this week.

Sentence a is wrong because ‘yesterday’ is finished time (i.e. the past), so we should use the past simple, not the present perfect. Sentence b is correct because ‘this week’ is unfinished time (i.e. present circumstances).

Example 3a.
a.Today was busy.
b.Today has been busy.

Although ‘today’ is ongoing time we can use the past tense to talk about today if we want to create the impression that we are looking back. We would use sentence b at the end of the day; we would use sentence a in the middle of the day.

Note: While we can use the past simple to talk about ongoing time, we can never use the present perfect to talk about finished time.

Example 3b.
a.This year we made a lot of money.
b.This year we have made a lot of money.

Again, sentence a can be used at the end of the year (e.g. in December) to convey that we are looking back. Sentence b can be used in the middle of the year as it conveys that the year is still going.

...the past simple tense is used to talk about finished time (i.e. the past) while the present perfect is used to talk about unfinished time (i.e. present circumstances)

Implied Time-Frames

In all the previous examples a time-frame was explicitly stated: ‘this morning’, ‘yesterday’, ‘this week’. In this example the time-frame is not given.

Example 1a.
a. I have been to Spain three times.
b. I haven’t read that book.

However, it is obvious that the time-frame is the speaker’s lifetime. He is saying ‘I have been to Spain three times in my life’, ‘I haven’t read that book in my life.’

We use the present perfect to talk about our lives because our lives are unfinished: we are still living them!

Example 1b.
a. Haven’t you tried sushi (in your life)?
b. Has he had any children (in his life)?

Again, we use the present perfect when asking about someone’s lifetime because it is unfinished.

Example 2a.
a. How are you?
b. How have you been?

Sentence a uses the present simple, so it is a question about the listener’s current state. The speaker is asking, ‘How are you now?’ In sentence b the implied timeframe is the period since the two people last saw each other. The speaker is saying ‘How have you been since I last saw you?’

Note: 'Since we last saw each other' is an unfinished time-period, just like 'this week' or 'today'. So, although sentence b is not specifically about the present moment, it is about 'present circumstances'. It's just like saying 'I've drunk two coffees this morning'. The activity of drinking coffee is in the past, but the time-period 'this morning' is still going; you are presently in 'this morning'.

Example 2b.
a. I haven’t had any children.
b. I didn’t have any children.

As you have just learned, we use the present perfect to talk about our lives because our lives are unfinished. However, you might hear an old person talking about his or her life using the past simple tense, as in sentence b, as it creates the impression of looking back.

Example 2c.
a. Sorry, I have broken your pencil.
b. Have you seen my pencil?

In sentence a the implied time-frame is the period since the pencil was lent. In sentence b the implied time-frame is the period since the speaker last had his pencil.

Note: It would be wrong to ask 'Did you see my pencil?' (past simple) as this seems to be a question about about the past, when what you really want to know is whether the listener has seen your pencil since you last had it, which is an ongoing time-period.

Example 2d.
a.Did you remember your passport?
b.Have you remembered your passport?

Sometimes either way is correct. Technically, sentence a is about the past. The speaker is effectively saying, 'Did you get your passport when you had the opportunity to get it?' Sentence b is technically a question about present circumstances. The speaker is essentially asking 'Do you have your passport now?' However, in this context a and b mean essentially the same thing.

We use the present perfect to talk about our lives because our lives are unfinished: we are still living them!

Past Perfect / Past Simple / Past Continuous

We use the past simple to convey cause and effect or to convey a time relationship that seems like cause and effect.

Example 1. (Past Simple)
a. When I dropped the glass it smashed.
b. When I got to the party my friend left.
c. When I left the house it rained.

In scenario a the glass smashes very soon after being dropped. It smashes because it has been dropped. In scenario b your friend leaves the party very soon after you arrive. It may be that she leaves because you have arrived, but not necessarily; however, the time-relationship between your arriving and your friend's leaving is as if you caused her to leave. In scenario c it begins to rain very soon after you leave the house. Obviously you have not caused it to rain, but the time relationship between your leaving the house and the rain beginning to fall is as if you have caused it to rain by leaving the house.

Example 2.
a. When I left the house it rained.
b. When I left the house it was raining.
c. When I left the house it had rained.

In scenario a when you open the door you see dark clouds, but no rain. It starts to rain shortly after you leave. In scenario b when you open the door you see rain. It began to rain earlier and is still raining. In scenario c when you open the door you see puddles of water on the ground, but no rain. It rained earlier but is not raining now.

Remember: The past perfect is use to describe past circumstances with reference to prior events. In c the past circumstances are 'when I left the house' and the prior event is 'it had rained'. By using the past perfect in this way we are in effect saying 'When I left the house the ground was wet, but it was not raining'.

Future Perfect / Future Simple / Future Continuous

The future perfect is for imagining future circumstances:

Example 1
a When she gets home I will cook supper.
b When she gets home I will be cooking supper.
c When she gets home I will have cooked supper.

In a you begin cooking shortly after she gets home. (Note the cause-and-effect relationship here, just as in the earlier past-simple examples.) In b you are in the process of cooking when she arrives home: you have already begun to cook, but have not finished. In c you finish cooking before she arrives home. When she gets home supper is ready to eat.

Context

As you have learned, the perfect and simple tenses can sometimes be used to convey the same information. Our choice of whether to use the perfect or simple depends on the context.

Conversation 1
A: Why are your shoes so dirty?
B When I left the party it had rained.

Person B answers using the past perfect because she wants to describe her past circumstances (when she walked home from the party) with reference to a prior event (the rain). By using the past perfect this way she answers the question very efficiently.

Conversation 2
A: I don't want to bump into my ex at the party.
B: Don't worry. When you arrive he will have left.

Person B answers using the future perfect because she wants to describe person A's future circumstances (arriving at the party) with reference to an earlier event (her ex leaving the party).

I hope this article has helped you to understand the connection between the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses, and how they differ from other tenses. There are usually multiple ways of saying the same thing, so you will often find, for example, that the past tense or present perfect tense can be used to convey the same information. However, you must never use the perfect tense to talk about about finished time.

If you have any questions, please contact me.

John

Get in touch now for one-to-one help with your English and pronunciation.










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English
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United Kingdom
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English
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Learn how to speak English with a better accent in my British pronunciation lessons. Your lessons will involve a variety of customised vocal and listening exercises to develop your speech and aural comprehension. With my help you will become a more confident communicator and make a better impression on the people you interact with. Book a trial lesson now and send me a quick message telling me about yourself. I look forward to helping you with your English! John * Visit my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/speakenglishman * See my latest blog posts below