4

I'm studying tenses and the Perfect and Perfect Progressive tenses are causing me the most trouble. There is one particular thing I find the most confusing -- the implication of (in)completeness of the action.

The grammar sources say that sometimes the statement implies that the action is complete, but sometimes that it still continues, or is uncertain (see examples below). And I can't find a method to nail it down in any case. I would appreciate if you give me some pointers; what should I look for or be aware of? I really want to pull it all together.

Some examples:

Perfect:

I have lived here for 2 years. (I continue to live here)

We have eaten breakfast together every morning since our honeymoon. (We continue to eat breakfast together)

but...

I have had lunch. (I don't continue having lunch)

I have read the book. (I don't continue reading it)


Perfect Progressive:

We have been going to Italy for holiday for years. (We continue going to Italy for holiday)

Every morning they meet in the same cafe. They have been going there for years. (They continue going there)

but...

I'm exhausted. I have been painting the ceiling. (I'm not painting it now, or maybe uncertain)

I had been working on my novel when she entered the room to talk to me. (this implies that I stopped working when she came in)

  • 5
    @ Graduate: I think you make a rod for your own back by trying to identify "incompleteness" as central to the Perfect tense. The key implication in I have been painting the ceiling is nothing to do with whether the action has actually been completed or not. The main thing is that present perfect continuous implies a strong connection to the present moment. As clearly exists in your example, since whether or not you've finished painting, you're offering it as the explanation of why you're exhausted now. – FumbleFingers Jun 9 '13 at 22:32
4

You are correct in your understanding that the perfect progressive (or perfect continuous) is used whenever there is incompleteness in the action, but you're missing two important points:

The first is that the perfect progressive can also have the meaning of "recently" or "lately." For example, in the sentence, "I have been feeling ill." I might actually be feeling fine at the moment.

The second is simply that in conversational English sentences which bend (or sometimes flat out break) the rules are still used, and can become so natural sounding that they're considered perfectly acceptable.

Here's a look at the examples you listed which appeared to contradict the meaning of the verb tense used:

I have lived here for two years.

I would say "I have been living here for two years." The acceptability of your sentence is simply due to its wide usage. Present progressive is the technical choice here.

We have eaten breakfast together every morning since our honeymoon.

This one might actually be correct both in technical and colloquial speech, but perfect progressive would be as well. The action you're describing here is [eating breakfast together], which is something you're not currently doing. You've given specific times at which these events occurred [every morning since your honeymoon], so you're really talking about a series of completed actions. This one's tricky -- I can definitely tell you both would pass for acceptable wording.

However, were somebody to say to me, "Would you like to join me for breakfast tomorrow?" I would probably answer, "Sorry, I'll be eating with my husband as usual. We have been eating breakfast together every morning since our honeymoon." since the continuation of this pattern is actually the focus of my sentence.

Again, I don't think either wording is going to raise any eyebrows regardless of context, even in educated company.

I'm exhausted. I have been painting the ceiling.

This is that other use of perfect progressive I mentioned, that these are the actions I've taken recently. The regular perfect tense implies that the painting is definitely concluded -- "I have painted the ceiling, so we only have to do the walls tomorrow."

You can also add a duration on the end with perfect progressive which you cannot do with simple perfect. "I have been painting the ceiling all morning." This sentence would probably be said around noon; the actions should have started at some non-specific point in the past and continued until now. If it's already evening I would instead use the past tense, "I'm exhausted. I was painting the ceiling all morning."

I had been working on my novel when she entered the room to talk to me.

This one is actually past perfect continuous while your other examples were all present, so its rules are a little different. The past perfect continuous means that something started at a point in the past, and continued all the way up to another point which is also in the past. With the past perfect continuous the action stops before the present -- it always has an end point. In this example, the end point was when she came in to talk to me.

The regular past perfect must reference an action that was already complete when she came into the room ("I had written three chapters before she came into the room to talk to me.") It is also different from the past continuous tense in that the focus is on the activity of writing rather than on what was happening the moment she entered the room "I was writing when she entered the room to talk to me" is perfectly correct and describes the same situation that your example did, it just isn't putting the emphasis on the same thing.

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.