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Advanced - Perfect Aspect

Friday, 11 September 2009
Man trying to comfort an upset friend Example of perfect aspect: Why are you crying? What has happened? Designed by Bearfotos

English grammar lesson on-line for advanced level students or teachers - An in depth examination of the Perfect Aspect in the forms of the Present, Past and Future.

Introduction - Perfect Aspect

The Perfect Aspect (or the Perfect Tense) of a verb shows an action that has happened in the past, before or earlier than now (Present Perfect and Past Perfect). It also expresses a completed moment or period of time later than now (Future Perfect). As the Simple Aspect, the Perfect Aspect can be Simple or Continuous. It is formed with "have" and the past participle of the verb.

The Present Perfect Simple


A moment or period of time between "before now" and "now".

- We are talking about an action which took place at an unspecified time before now. We are usually more interested in the result of the action rather than in the action itself.
  • Somebody has drunk up all my soup! (I can see the result: empty dish, no soup)
  • Why are you crying? What has happened? (tears streaming down your face)

We do not know or care about exactly when the actions (has drunk, has happened) took place, so we use the Present Perfect. If we are interested in the actions themselves (e.g. information about when, where, who and how), we use the Past Simple.

The Present Perfect Continuous


An unspecified time in the period between "before now" and "now".

- We are talking about something which began but not necessarily finish in the period between "before now" and "now". In particular, we are interested in the process of the action .
  • The rate of inflation has been falling slowly since the beginning of the year.
  • I've been working on this problem since nine o'clock this morning and I still haven't solved it.

In each case, the activity (falling, working on) is still going on. Instead, in the following examples, the activity itself has ended, but the result are clear and of great interest to us:

  • Have you been working in the garden? (you look tired and your boots are dirty)
  • What on earth have you been doing? (said by a mother to her child who has come in covered in mud)


The Past Perfect Simple


Earlier than a time before now.

- We use this tense when we want to make it clear that action A took place in a time before and separate from the time when action B took place.
  • I gave my wife the present (action B) which I had bought the day before (action A)
  • When I arrived at the station (action B), the train had already left (action A)
  • The two leaders agreed to meet (action B) even though earlier talks had failed to reach an agreement (action A)

Note the difference between the following examples:

  • The film started when I arrived (action A = I arrived) - (action B = the film started)
  • The film had started when I arrived (action A = the film started) - (action B = I arrived)

The Past Perfect Continuous

The commonest use of this verb form is to provide the past form of the present perfect continuous, for example in reported speech:

  • I have been working hard today. He said that he had been working hard that day.

Earlier than a time before now.

- We use this tense to talk about something that was in progress recently before or up to a past point in time.

- It can be used to talk about a situation or activity that went on before a particular past time and a) finished at that time, b) continued beyond it, or c) finished shortly before it.

- We are interested in how long the activity went on.

  • I had been finishing some work in the garden when Sue arrived, so I didn't hear her come in (action in progress up to the moment she arrived)
  • We had been driving for about an hour when the engine suddenly stopped - a) (activity that went on before a past time and finished at that time)
  • She felt terrible during the interview because she had been suffering from flue since the previous day - b) (action continued beyond a past time)
  • When I last saw John, he had been running and was out of breath - c) (action finished shortly before a past time)
  • When the merger was announced it became apparent that the two companies had been discussing the possibility since last year (we are interested in how long the activity went on)

The past perfect continuous is mainly used in written texts and is less common in speech. Here is an example of the past perfect continuous used in newspaper stories:

  • The body of a climber who went missing in the Alps was finally found yesterday. Carl Sims had been climbing alone in the dangerous area of Harz Waterfall, which has claimed many lives in the past.

The Future Perfect Simple - The Future Perfect Continuous


A completed period of time in the future, later than now

- We want to project ourselves into the future and look back in order to say that an action has finished.

The Continuous form is used to emphasise the duration of an activity in progress at a particular point in the future. With both the Future Perfect and the Future Perfect Continuous we usually mention the future time, e.g. By the time..., On Saturday...)

  • By the time you get home, I will have cleaned the house from top to bottom (Action finished by a point in the future)
  • On Saturday, we will have been living in this house for a year (Duration of the activity in progress at a point in the future)

Future Perfect and Future Perfect Continuous can also be used to say what we believe or imagine is happening around now:

  • Tennis fans will have been queuing at Flushing Meadows Park all day to buy tickets (what we imagine is happening around now)

We can use Future Perfect Continuous to say what we think was happening at a point in the past.

  • The motorist will have been asking himself whether speed cameras are a good idea after he was fined £ 100 last week for driving at 33 mph in 30 mph zone. (what we think was happening at a point in the past).
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Last modified on Saturday, 27 October 2018 20:29

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