This is a Canonical Post, intended as a reference and resource for both Questioners and Answerers.
The English “perfect” is deeply puzzling for learners. Nearly one Question in every twenty here asks about perfect constructions, and every Answer seems to raise new Questions. Even very advanced learners often misuse the perfect, or fail to use it when they should.
If it makes you feel better, the experts are baffled, too. Grammarians and linguists have been quarreling about the perfect for more than two hundred years. There are several large books on the subject, and important papers are published every year. It is only in the last ten years or so that a consensus has started to emerge.
Moreover use varies, especially in speech. Some uses are statistically more common in the UK than the US, and in many contexts speakers make no very clear distinction between, say, a present perfect and a simple past.
So there are no cut-and-dried rules you can always apply in every situation. The best I can offer is rules of thumb. These will work in nine cases out of ten—and nobody has yet figured out the rules for the tenth case! … I’ll mark these with this sign: ☛. Here’s the first one:
☛ Follow formal use of the perfect
This may appear to contradict what many of you have been taught, which is to keep your language colloquial and ‘everyday’. But with English perfects, formal use is everyday. The standard forms are used and understood everywhere, and will not mark your speech as pedantic or unnatural, even in very casual conversation. It will be simpler for you to learn just one pattern and use it all the time.
My rules of thumb will always reflect standard formal use. I will take little notice of colloquial use, except to point out non-standard (but colloquially acceptable) uses which might confuse you . With examples I’ll use a leading asterisk, ∗, to mark utterances which are regarded as non- or sub-standard in the formal register.
∗ I haven’t ate yet.
Because this is a very large topic, I’ve split it into separate Questions. Here are links to them, with the “Short Answer” rules of thumb for each:
☛ English perfects have two components: a form of the auxiliary verb HAVE on the left (the ‘HAVE’ piece), and a verbstring headed by a past participle (PA·PPL) on the right (the ‘VERB’) piece).
This section includes a discussion of the most common errors learners make in constructing perfects.
☛ A perfect construction is a form of HAVE followed by a past participle, with nothing coming between them but adverbs or adverbials.
This section includes discussion of (2.1) syntactic factors which make recognizing a perfect construction difficult , (2.2) constructions which look like perfects but aren’t, and (2.3) constructions with modal verbs which employ the perfect construction in a non-perfect sense.
3. What does the perfect mean?
☛ The perfect introduces a prior eventuality which in some sense constitutes a current state. But it is up to the hearer to infer the nature of that state.
This is a long and complicated section, so I have divided it into two parts:
3.1 grammatical meaning of the perfect, which is conferred by the construction itself
☛The VERB piece presents an eventuality located before the time which is being spoken about.
☛The HAVE piece presents a state which is current at the time which is being spoken about.
☛The perfect cannot be used to express narrative sequence.
3.2 pragmatic meaning of the perfect, which is inferred by the hearer/reader from the context in which the construction is used.
☛ The ‘standard framework’ describes what the perfect means, distinguishing three meanings the perfect may express— continuative (“has been since...”), resultative (“has brought about ...”) and existential (“been there, done that”).
☛ Recent studies look at how the perfect means and suggest that meaning is not expressed by perfect constructions but inferred by hearers/readers from both the prior eventuality introduced and the larger discourse context.
☛ ”Don’t use the perfect unless you need it.”
☛ Use perfect constructions to introduce prior eventualities as context for the current discussion.
This section links many ELL questions and answers which may address your immediate concern more directly. It is divided into questions about
- constructing a perfect correctly
- distinguishing perfect constructions
- perfect tense
- perfect aspect
- modal, irrealis and conditional perfects
- the kinds of perfect meaning
- choosing between perfect constructions and simple present or past constructions
- coordinating the use of perfect constructions with clauses using other verb constructions
- the use of perfect constructions with time expressions
A note on notation
Occasionally the names of verb constructions will appear abbreviated, as follows:
These abbreviations may be combined, thus: PA·PF·PRG, meaning a ‘past perfect progressive construction’.
A word in uppercase italics, like HAVE, means ‘any appropriate form’ of the word, and the name of a word class (part of speech) in uppercase italics, like VERB or MODAL, means ‘any word of that class’. The superscript abbreviation XX of a verb form or construction after one of these means ‘the XX form of this word or word class’. For instance,
VERBPA·PPL means ‘the past participle form of whatever verb you are using’.