What Is the Present Perfect?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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The first verb tenses that young minds learn are in the definite present, past and future. Beyond these distinctions, however, are the perfect forms of these verb constructions: present perfect, past perfect and future perfect. In the present perfect tense, something "has been happening" at an unspecified time in the past, and it still may be happening in the present. In English, this tense always combines "has been" or "have been" with a verb in the present participle, usually ending in "-ing." A few simple examples illustrate the proper grammar: "I have been speaking to the man about our lack of communication," or, "They have been giving you ample time to learn about verb tenses."

When used to negate something in the past, a few alterations are made. "Few have ever questioned her authority," qualitatively changes the standard present perfect construction. The most commonly used negation device in this tense is the addition of the word "not," as in, "I have not studied enough to know verb tenses by heart."


Questions in the present perfect are formed in a different way, too. The "has" or "had" and verb can be separated in a question by a few words used to qualify the sentence. It can be the object, such as, "Has she gone to the store yet?" or "Have you done your homework?" It can also be a word like "there," or even "there ever, as in, "Have there ever been fights at work about proper grammar?"

Present perfect tense has some prohibitions as well. It cannot be used with words that identify a timeframe or date. That would erase the unspecified nature of the tense. It would simply not sound right: "Last year, I had seen that movie four times." Instead, the past tense would suffice: "Last year, I saw that movie four times."

The cornerstone to understanding the use of present perfect is knowing when the idea of "unspecified time" will be needed. It will differ from the other tenses in specific ways. By contrast, past perfect tense reflects something that has definitely occurred in the past but no longer occurs in the present, like, "I had been hoping for a win." With the future perfect tense, something is being described that "will have" happened by a destined time in the future. An example of this tense is, "When I finally understand present perfect tense, I will have studied for hours."


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Post 1

Before I started teaching my adult ESL students the present perfect tense, I had to go over the rules myself. When you are speaking or writing your first language, it's funny, you just know the words to use. But when you try to teach it, you're at a loss.

I used to use all sorts of methods to get them to understand. I would use charts and line diagrams that showed the present, past and perfect.

Then I would walk through the different times as I spoke sentences, like - I'm in the past now and did something and then walked into the present, still doing this action. After doing everything, but "stand on my head," they would finally get it.

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