Some musings on the Present Perfect tense

The aim of this article is to consider a variety of problems with the application of the Present Perfect Tense, perfect constructions in English, constructions that have arisen from Present Perfect and so on. The issues dealt with here are seen from the perspective of users of English as a Foreign Language.

Most of the text is made up of questions which claim to be hypothesis concerning the use of the Present Perfect.

I acknowledge that the statements made here reflect the personal, biased opinion of the author and are usually not supported by scientific facts or opinions by other experts, unless otherwise indicated.

Some pedagogical implications have also been considered.

1. Is Present Perfect tense or the constructions, formulas, idioms etc. based on the tense used statistically more frequently than the Past Simple, a tense which is by some users easily confused when compared with the Present Perfect.

Is it more common in American English, in other varieties of English such as Australian, Canadian or the international version of English?

2. Which tense is more common in written and spoken form?

The question of frequency can have possible implications for treating one tense as more important in English language teaching and as a result shifting the methodological perspectives in grammar or course books. That’s why below I argue that teaching Present Perfect before or along with Past Simple could be considered.

3. Hence, one of the complications here concerns the subject whether Present Perfect is used more frequently in everyday acts of speech which, when looked back, span a short time period, not very remote from the time of speaking (or from the mental space in which the time (or linguistic construction) has been conceived). The time usually spans only a recent day, the day which is still running or the present week. Such situations are more realistic or palpable especially for younger learners of English who are hesitant to talk about the past (especially the historical events).

The question of frequency (if it turned out that it is a more common tense in the above act of speech) would render Present Perfect a more important construction in English language teaching methodology. It could change the perspective of teachers; that is, would oblige them to give it more priority, and introduce it in the learning process before Past Simple.

4. Is Present Perfect as a form a more easier construction to master?

Using Past Participle form in statements, questions and negatives is relatively easier than the Past Simple form. The learner needs to make familiar with auxiliary verb “have” and the relatively easy formation of a sentence as compared to Past Simple where the learner has to remember the rule of using an infinitive in questions and negatives and the past form of the verb in statements.

Can the learners’ familiarity with a similar construction “Have you got” be favourable to mastering the construction and hence the application of Present Perfect.

What is the origin of the construction “have you got” ?

Have you got a pen? – Do you posses it?

Have you got a pen? – Have you acquired it?

Is the possessive use of “have” akin to the Perfect construction?

5. Can we argue for any relative merit of the two constructions? That is, is one of them more important, usable or doable for the speakers (especially native speakers) of English? Which tense has in the speakers discourse a more frequent rate of occurrence? See also point 3 and 4.

6. What would happen if we could miraculously fashion the grammatical construction of Present Perfect into a lexicalized matter, regarding the tense as a set of formulaic language, lexical construction or even idiom rather then treat it as a hard-as-rock grammar phenomenon? Do the native speakers of English with some linguistics awareness (or without it) consider the tense as a grammar rule or rather as a meaningful piece of language only to get a message across?

7. What response would be to a following linguistic provocation?

I haven’t seen Mary yesterday.

Have you worked in this factory in 2001?

In other words, what would the response of native speakers be if they encountered or happened to be using the constructions above with the adverbials of time which are usually affiliated with the Past Simple actions. The aim of such experiment would be to elicit some of the following statements:

  • the sentences in question are wrong, incorrect etc.
  • the sentences in question are wrong, but when I hear them I understand what is said.

8. What is the origin of the Past Participle form? Is it an independent, lexical category or has it been formed on the basis of the infinitive? Did it arise autonomously or has it shifted from the infinitive form?

What about the need to make new parts of speech?

For example: adjectives from verbs: do – done, e.g. The meat is well done.

Nouns from verbs, e.g. a set (eel-set, TV set, onset, tea set, on the set (=scenery in a theatre)). From ‘to set’ (to put something (down)) and etymologically from ‘to sit’

other examples:

“to take” for “a taken seat”

“to read” for “a good read”

“to order” for “a well ordered society”


9. Comparison of the possessive “I have got” with a similar construction “I have got / I have done something”

I have a broken leg.  vs. My leg is broken. vs.  I have broken my leg.

I have a written book. vs. My book has been written. vs.  I have written a book.

Although some of the above sentences may sound unnatural, what they all have in common is that they resemble a prototypical Present Perfect construction and as a result may help build a picture of what the nature of Present Perfect is.

Also, it is worth comparing a specific occurrence of Present Perfect in Polish, as illustrated below:

Source: The Changing Languages of Europe by  Heine, B. Kuteva, T. Chapter 4: The Rise of Possessive Perfects p. 159

10. Why do linguists from the so called structural or formalist traditions derive conjugated forms of verbs from the infinitive? Is it an advisable approach to introduce students to Past Participle forms as those arising from the infinitive? Is the tabulated approach in which verbs are presented in three columns: first the infinitive, second the Past Simple form and third the Past Participle a viable and natural way of verb teaching?

be was / were been
go went gone
set set set
make made made


Isn’t the label “Past Participle” a little bit confusing in the context of Present Perfect teaching?

11. Consider the following experiment. In English language teaching environment, the order of the second and third verb forms in the table is reversed. First goes the infinitive, second the Past Participle and the Past Simple gets the last place.

be been was / were
go gone went
set set set
make made made

In this example, limited to four instances of very frequent verbs only, the infinitive and the Past Participle look very similar to one another. Would such order be favourable to language learning? Would it be favourable especially in the rote memorization of verbs as it often takes place in foreign language classrooms? What about the rest, 300 or so irregular verbs? Do they also come in the similar arrangement when the Past Participle and the Past Simple have a very similar form?

12. What is the relationship of English Present Perfect to German Perfekt Tense.

  1. Es hat gestern stark geregnet.
  2. It rained heavily yesterday.
  3. * It has rained heavily yesterday.
  4. It has rained heavily today.
  5. Wczoraj padał duży deszcz.

Why is it possible to say a. in German but not c. in English? Is there any evolutionary or historical relationship between the English and German tenses?

13. How many Past Participle verbs are similar in form to the infinitive. See also point 11.

14. How many Past Simple verbs are similar in form to the infinitive? See also point 11.

15. What about the timelines used in the presentation of Present Perfect? Is it helpful to conceptualize the time span of Present Perfect? Does this practice visualize the use of the tense?

 present-perfect-diagram_1  present_perfect3e_2
1. 2.
 present-perfect_3  present_perfect-01_4
3. 4.