“It just doesn’t seem fair,” Eve said. “It was the other driver’s fault.”

“If it was anybody’s fault,” Denny said, “it was mine for being where I could get collected.”

This is something I’d heard him say before: getting angry at another driver for a driving incident is pointless. You need to watch the drivers around you, understand their skill, confidence, and aggression levels, and drive with them accordingly. Know who is driving next to you. Any problems that may occur have ultimately been caused by you, be-cause you are responsible for where you are and what you are doing there. (Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain)

There’s a perfect tense in the highlighted part. I guess it might be expressing that the cause is prior to the problem that may occur in the future. Is this what the perfect mean?

2 Answers 2


You've got it. You are to take both presents, may occur and have been caused, in the same 'generic', timeless sense as you are responsible:

Whatever is, is right.
Whatever occurs has been willed by God.

Your observation is very nice: the use feels odd to me, too. I would be happier if the author had omitted the may, which leads you to expect a futurive of some sort. But this is written in a non-formal style, the meaning is clear, and it would take an exceptionally rigorous pedant to say it's an actual error.


This is actually very straightforward. The pattern in the sentence:

Any problems that may occur have ultimately been caused by you

follows the same pattern as, for instance:

All that you see here has been built by me.

The perfect tense or aspect is not dedicated to cause and effect (past causes and present/future effects), but to the completeness of an action. It's just a kind of verb tense that occurs in some languages which indicates that an action is complete. To be "perfect" is to be complete. In contrast, an "imperfective" verb form in some languages indicates an action which is somehow not done (the action is habitual, repetitive, or ongoing).

Your example sentence is based on the participle of the verb to cause, and that is what makes it about cause and effect, not the perfect aspect.

If we want to blame any present effect on a cause, that cause has to be something which already happened, and so the grammar of the perfect aspect fits the semantic situation, making it useful in expressing causes and effects. However, is not confined just to causes and effects.

Moreover, we don't have to use the perfect aspect grammar in order to make clear cause and effect relationships. For instance:

The mistakes you made in the past are causing current problems and will continue to cause future problems.

Note that are causing is ongoing, hence imperfective, the very opposite of the perfect, yet used to say the same kind of thing: that past causes are responsible for current or future problems.

And, by the way, another thing worth a remark is that your sentence is passive. This slightly complicates in a way that is irrelevant to the discussion of the perfect aspect. We can turn it into an active sentence like this:

You have caused all the problems that may occur.

(Note how "any" has to become "all" due to the perspective reversal.)

The analysis is the same. It is still present perfect, and saying that past causes are the reason for current or future problems.

If the causes are not necessarily in the past, the future perfect can be used:

You will have caused all the problems that will occur. [You have not caused anything now. But you will in the future. There will come times when you will complete various irresponsible actions, and these will result in the occurrence of problems.]

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