6

As far as I know "For the last Х years" requires the Present Perfect (continuous) and means that the action is still taking place.

I have been building a house for the last three years.

However, I have come across a puzzling example in an American magazine.

"..... Today is my first day driving a cab. I've been driving a hearse for the last 25 years."

I understand it as he doesn't drive a hearse any more. Why the Present Perfect then? Driving a cab is in the past now. Wouldn't it be better to say :"I was driving a hearse for the last 25 years"? or "I was driving a hearse for 25 years"? Or is it OK to use the PPC in such contexts.

Another example, "For the last 30 years our Institute offered a summer math program..." (found in the same American magazine) I understand it as the Institute doesn't offer the summer program any more. Am I right? We can see that the writer uses the Past Simple here. I thought it would be very fitting to do it in the first example as well.

So, I'd like to know: Is it OK to use either the Present Perfect (Continuous) or Past Simple (Past Continuous) with "for the last Х years"? But it seems like it:

"I have been driving a cab for the last 25 years." may mean two different things

1) I am still doing it. 2) I am not doing it any more. Is it possible?

Let's take the last example:

You were waiting for a person for 30 minutes but the person didn't show up and you went off. What would you say to the person on the phone 2 minutes later after you went away from the waiting spot?

1) Hello John, you know I have been waiting for you for the last 30 minutes. But - alas!

2) Hello John, you know I was waiting for you for the last 30 minutes. But - alas!

3) Hello John, you know I was waiting for you for 30 minutes. But - alas!

5

SHORT ANSWER:
Yes, the continuative present perfect may be used to signify a state which continues right up to the present regardless of whether it continues in the present. It is not, however, used to signify a state which does not continue right up to the present.

LONG ANSWER:
The 'continuative' present perfect establishes the past event or events it names as a state which endures right up to the present.

Situations grammatically depicted as states are presumed to continue indefinitely, until something happens to end them.

Consequently, the present perfect permits you to infer that the state it describes continues in the present. In fact, this is the default assumption with an unqualified present perfect. If you had only the statement “I've been driving a hearse for the last 25 years” you would legitimately infer that he is still driving a hearse.

But the present perfect does not entail—logically require—the continuation. Linguists call this an implicature, as opposed to an implication: it is in inference which may be cancelled by a contrary fact. That's what you have here, with the statement “Today is my first day driving a cab.”

Note, by the way, that there is in this particular use of the perfect, no difference between the use with the progressive, “I have been driving”, and without it, “I have driven”. The phrase “for the last 25 years” imposes the same continuative reading on both.

Note, too, that because the hearse-driving does not continue into the present the speaker might with propriety have employed the ‘simple past’: “I drove a hearse for 25 years.” I suspect he uses the perfect (and the progressive) because what he wants to convey is that there is a continuity in his activity: “I’m still driving, what’s changed is that now I’m driving a cab.”

Note, finally, that the notion of ‘present’ is defined pragmatically. Obviously when someone says he has driven a hearse for 25 years he does not mean that he drove continuously throughout that period. By the same token, the ‘present’ which that driving continued ‘right up to’ is not the moment in time when the statement is uttered but “today”


The case of John’s tardiness is a little different. In the circumstances you describe, neither the continuative present perfect nor the phrase “for the last 30 minutes” is proper. You are dealing with a much different timeframe and scale than the cabdriver. Your answer (“alas”) makes it clear that you are pragmatically defining three distinct epochs: 1) you wait for 30 minutes 2) you depart, and a couple of minutes elapse—long enough, at any rate, that you are no longer in the vicinity of the appointed meetingplace 3) then John calls. Consequently, the state of waiting (1) did not continue “right up to” the present (3).

Here are some ways you might express the facts:

I waited for you for thirty minutes, but, alas, when you didn’t show up I left.
I waited for you for thirty minutes, but, alas, I’ve left now.
I waited for you for thirty minutes, but, alas, I had to leave.

You should not employ the progressive I was waiting here; that is employed to speak about something which happened while you were waiting.

  • So the only justification for the usage of the PPC in the cab example is that the activity stays the same for the driver, right? But if the activity were different would it possible to use PPF? I think - no, right? – user1425 Sep 28 '13 at 11:16
  • Plus, would it be OK to use the PAST SIMPLE with "for the last X minutes"? "I waited for you for THE LAST thirty minutes, but, alas, I’ve left now." As in the example with "an institute program" we can see this combination used. – user1425 Sep 28 '13 at 11:22
  • 1
    @user1425 1) PaPf is fine, regardless; +/-Prg is a stylistic choice. 2) For the last X means "every X up to the current X", so "the last 30 years" is fine, but "the last 30 minutes" in your example is not: there were two intervening minutes when you were not waiting. – StoneyB Sep 28 '13 at 11:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.