14

I've got the same questions from different students recently. They question the necessity of learning Perfect tenses (even the Present Perfect Simple) claiming that as rumors say or as they hear in serials (e.g. Sex in the city, it was the last reference), people in real life situations don't use them much sticking to the Present Simple/Continuous and Past Simple (in all past situations). I'm not a native English speaker and I don't live in an English speaking country. So, I'm also curious if that's true that Perfect tenses are not used by people who are not linguists/teachers and so on. I feel a bit desperate when students say things like that, I don't want them to think they waste their time.

For sure, I explain my students that the main aim of the language is to convey the message and basic grammar is more than enough. But what about B1+ students? Should they really give up on "unnecessary" tenses

UPD Please, if you answer my question, say if you're a native speaker and if it's BrE or AmE. Also, if you're a linguist or not. My students and I would appreciate that.

17
  • 39
    Your students are being lazy. 'I've been to the gym three times this week', 'he has washed his car twice today', 'I've already seen this film', 'I've never been to the USA', 'He's been sending e-mails all morning'. These are all the kind of things that normal native speakers (who are not linguists) say. We need the perfect 'tense' to talk about everyday life. Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 15:40
  • 6
    Students doubt the usefulness of the PP tense. There is no such thing as an unnecessary tense in English.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 15:42
  • 5
    This question is just another variant of Do AmE speakers use the present perfect. It gets very tiresome to hear this stuff. Sex and the City is not exactly a paragon of good speech. There are much better ones.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 15:53
  • 30
    You might challenge your students to go to any major American English-language news site, like cnn.com, and find any story that never uses any of the perfect tenses. I'm betting it cannot be done. I have looked over (!!) several articles on cnn.com just now and found examples of perfect tense use in every one of them. Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 3:58
  • 7
    No. All grammar is necessary to speak a language to a decent level. I study Spanish and I don't refuse to learn the subjunctive tenses just because some native speakers don't use much. Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 19:46

8 Answers 8

27

Of course not.

The perfect tenses are freely used by native speakers of English. Five to ten percent of verbs are used in the perfective (sorry this is anecdotal and I can't remember my source for this).

A quick flick through a Friends script (Then one with the fake Monica) finds:

they've kind of already thrown caution to the wind.

Where've you been?

I've been worried.

he's reached sexual maturity.

They've arrested Monica.

Where the hell have you been?

You've been more than just a pet to me,

In addition there are a lot of "you've got to (do something)" which uses the perfect tense in a special way. And I haven't included modal perfect forms, like "could've", "should've" or "would've"

If you don't understand how the perfect tenses are used and what they mean, then you are not speaking English.

It is probably possible to omit very rare verbal forms like the subjunctive, at least at the B1 level. But not the perfect; it is necessary to communicate with native speakers.

8
  • 11
    I;m a maths teacher
    – James K
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 16:18
  • 2
    Yep, those are very good examples. Some should try the best comic series every written: Big Bang Theory.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 16:44
  • 2
    @NadinSh Native speaker, former English teacher, interpreter & translator, editor, features and newsletter writer. Good enough?
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 16:56
  • 6
    @Lambie: I wouldn't use The Big Bang Theory as an example of "everyday" English, since many of the characters (Especially Sheldon) sometimes speak in over-complex language, signifying their "awkward science nerd" trait.
    – Jonathan
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 8:49
  • 3
    Big Bang Theory is horrible! B.B.T. is the current era's example of a show that, mysteriously, causes a 50/50 split between "brilliant and incredible" and "totally useless".
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 17:30
13

I'm an English teacher of 17 years, and I studied Linguistics in university. The perfect tenses are absolutely necessary.

There's a tiny bit of truth to what your students are saying, and it might be worth mentioning it though. Present perfect has several functions. For some of them, Americans often use simple past instead:

Canadian: Have you travelled a lot?
American: No, but I went to France.

Here, the American is talking about their past experience and using simple past where the rest of us English speakers would prefer present perfect.

But for the many other functions of present perfect, it's a mistake to use simple past instead, including:

  • things that happened in the past and may happen again
  • expressing how long something has been happening, often with "for" or "since".

J.K. Rowling has written several novels.
I have been blind all my life.

In the simple past, the first sentence implies Rowling will never write another novel, and the second implies I'm no longer blind, neither of which is the intended meaning.

14
  • 2
    That Canadian/American example is inaccurate. Because it is perfectly normal to respond with a simple past in that case. You don't need to say: No, I haven't but I went to France last year. Again, it is absolutely not the case that Americans don't use the present perfect. Nor is it true that the Brits always use it so "perfectly".
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 16:42
  • 7
    As a native speaker of AmE I would not have given the answer, "No, but I went to France." It would either be, "No, but I went to France last year" (as in the comment above) or, "No, but I've been to France."
    – David K
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:13
  • 3
    @Lambie seeing "I went to France" there instead of "I've been to France" surprised me, native BrE. I don't think the tense of the question has anything to do with it. David K's answers are what I would expect to hear.
    – minseong
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 21:23
  • 2
    @Lambie "It's perfectly normal to respond with the simple past here" — only "I went to France last year" sounds normal to me, "I went to France" does not sound normal at all to me. So maybe the Canadian/American example is accurate after all if Americans would truly give this response (although David K says he wouldn't)
    – minseong
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 21:41
  • 1
    @Lambie I just don't find it "perfectly normal to respond with a simple past in that case" according to exactly the dialogue that is in the post
    – minseong
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 21:48
7

Here you go, what people who are serious about English need to learn:

enter image description here

I really do not think I have ever seen a better one.

It was created by the ISL Collective: Timeline

7
  • 2
    this is something I teach them, for sure. They are concerned not about the grammar itself but about the necessity of all that stuff if "normal" people speak using the Present Simple and Past and the Past Simple
    – NadinSh
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 16:09
  • 2
    @NadinSh What the heck are normal people?? Here's an AmE sales script: "Have I earned two more minutes of your time?"blog.hubspot.com/sales/sales-scripts-examples
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 16:23
  • normal - are not teachers, especially linguists who are supposed to be crazy about grammar :)
    – NadinSh
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 17:41
  • 1
    I think it would be worthwhile to distinguish the content from the labels. Many native speakers won't know exactly what the "PRESENT PERFECT CONTINUOUS" is, but can use it without problems. ESL tends to teach the labels too.
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 12:48
  • 3
    @MSalters I'm a native English speaker who can write/speak a very good English, but I did not know what perfect tenses were until I started hanging around over here. In general, for many questions here, I can answer definitively which usages are correct, acceptable, idiomatic, and so on, but I can't tell you why nearly as well as someone who has studied ESL. Most definitely "ordinary" native speakers do use perfect tenses, but most likely wouldn't know what they are if you asked.
    – Esther
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 19:36
6

This debate reminds me of the prevalence of a lot of students of Spanish language to not bother learning the verb conjugations and context of use of the subjunctive tenses, just because they are ''confusing'', ''they don't need it'' or a lot of native speakers don't use them or make mistakes with the subjunctive.

However, by doing this you effectively deprive yourself of the ability to express things in a subtle or natural way in a wide variety of situations. One could pick up a famous novel in the Spanish language and count how many times the subjunctive tenses are used on the first page.

5

Native AmE speaker, not a linguist or English teacher.

It’s true that we don’t use perfect tenses all that often. We nearly always prefer simpler constructions over more complicated ones when the simpler (in this case non-perfect) one suffices.

However, we do use perfect tenses when they’re needed, mostly to express complicated timelines useful for storytelling, particularly in written media.

If your students are mainly watching TV/movies, they won’t encounter as many perfects because the storytelling is mostly visual, and they may not notice the verbal ones they do encounter because we usually contract and de-stress them in spoken language.

1

This objection comes up in every subject, probably even more in mathematics and natural sciences. The general answer is that school provides a broad basis of skills and knowledge. School does that for an abstract reason (general education is valued in our societies even beyond immediate utility) and for a utilitarian reason (it opens up a wide spectrum of possible futures for the students). It is true that most of them will not need and even forget a lot, perhaps even the majority of what they are learning in, say, grade 10. The crucial thing is that nobody knows just which part will be needed or cherished later in life.

Therefore, one valid answer is:

If all you plan do do in your future lives is binge watch TV shows you are right: You don't need this class. You won't need math, geography or sports or any other subjects either. You are free to leave now or, if you are not of age yet, wait in the last row until you are.

Of course such questions come up less frequently when the lessons are interesting (hint ;-) ).

0

Most Common English Verb Tenses:

The simple present alone accounts for 57% of verbs. Next is the simple past (19.7%), then simple future (8.5%), followed by present perfect (6.0%) and then present progressive (5.1%).

This data comes from plays. In plays (decided by the researcher to be representative of spoken English) the present perfect is the fourth most common tense aspect. Unfortunately the research is old (1967), the sample size isn't very large, and it doesn't cover real-life interactions or more common media that your learners are likely to encounter (news articles, information posts, blogs, University website text, etc.).

Another page 'How many tenses does English have and which should I learn?' thinks the present perfect is ranked third, according to what tense aspects natives use the most.

Certainly I encounter the present perfect very often. I'm confident that every native is fluent with it. Good YouTube video that also answers your question: How Many Tenses Do Native English Speakers Use? The video presents that the present perfect is the third most common tense aspect (after simple present and simple past).

Is it worth learning? Probably not, you'll get by without it easily enough in any English-speaking environment and eventually your brain will internalise its meaning anyway just because you're surrounded by natives who do happen to use it.

4
  • 4
    The last paragraph seems to contradict the rest of the answer. Make a point of how it is a common tense that native speakers use, but then say it's not worth learning. That doesn't make sense. It is quite possible that the learners aren't surrounded by native speakers. if they were, then they wouldn't be asking if native speakers use this tense. If they don't learn the tense they won't know it.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 23:06
  • 1
    Re "worth learning": Do you mean learning formally, as opposed to immersion? Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 1:27
  • 3
    Great answer until the last paragraph. If you want to communicate effectively in English, being able to use the perfect tenses is not optional.
    – StephenS
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 13:44
  • 1
    Any playwright will tell you that good plays are not representative of spoken English, they are representative of good dialog writing, which is an art form that is highly stylized but is meant to sound completely natural while actually being quite artificial. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 14:20
0

I'm a native speaker. I was born in New Zealand, and lived 20 years in Australia. My dialect is closer to UK English than US. I am not a professional linguist.

When I saw the question I wasn't sure what you meant by present perfect, but it seems that I use it all the time. (Most of what I know about the perfect was stuff I learned in Latin class many years ago). What are your students hoping to use their English for? If they plan to be waiters, taxi drivers or cleaners, I'm sure they can get by without the present perfect. If they want to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, or accountants, they need to understand the nuances of what is being said, and they need to sound credible.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .