The present perfect is a grammatical combination of the present tense and the perfect aspect, used to express a past event that has present consequences. The term is used particularly in the context of English grammar, where it refers to forms such as "I have left" and "Sue has died". These forms are present because they use the present tense of the auxiliary verb have, and perfect because they use that auxiliary in combination with the past participle of the main verb. (Other perfect constructions also exist, such as the past perfect: "I had eaten.")
Analogous forms are found in some other languages, and these may also be described as present perfects, although they often have other names, such as the German Perfekt and the French passé composé. They may also have different ranges of usage – for example, in both of the languages just mentioned, the forms in question serve as a general past tense, at least for completed actions. In English, completed actions in many contexts are referred to using the simple past verb form rather than the present perfect.
English also has a present perfect progressive (or present perfect continuous) form, which combines present tense with both perfect aspect and progressive (continuous) aspect: "I have been eating". In this case the action is not necessarily complete; the same is true of certain uses of the basic present perfect when the verb expresses a state or a habitual action: "I have lived here for five years."
In modern English, the auxiliary verb for forming the present perfect is always to have. A typical present perfect clause thus consists of the subject, the auxiliary have/has, and the past participle (third form) of the main verb. Examples:
- I have eaten some food.
- You have gone to school.
- He has already arrived in Catalonia.
- He has had child after child... (The Mask of Anarchy, Percy Shelley)
- Lovely tales that we have heard or read... (Endymion (poem), John Keats)
Early Modern English used both to have and to be as perfect auxiliaries. Examples of the second can be found in older texts:
- Madam, the Lady Valeria is come to visit you. (The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare)
- Vext the dim sea: I am become a name... (Ulysses, Tennyson)
- Pillars are fallen at thy feet... (Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage, Lydia Maria Child)
- I am come in sorrow. (Lord Jim, Conrad)
In many other European languages, the equivalent of to have (e.g. German haben, French avoir) is used to form the present perfect (or their equivalent of the present perfect) for most or all verbs. However, the equivalent of to be (e.g. German sein, French être) serves as the auxiliary for other verbs in some languages, such as German, Dutch, French, and Italian (but not Spanish or Portuguese). Generally, the verbs that take to be as auxiliary are intransitive verbs denoting motion or change of state (e.g. to arrive, to go, to fall).
For more details, see Perfect constructions with auxiliaries.
In particular languages
In many European languages, including standard German, French and Italian, the present perfect verb form usually does not convey perfect aspect, but rather perfective aspect. In these languages, it has usurped the role of the simple past (i.e. preterite) in spoken language, and the simple past is now really only used in formal written language and literature. In standard English, Spanish, and Portuguese, by contrast, the present perfect and simple past are both common, and have distinct uses.
1) Actions started in the past and continuing in the present:
2) When the time period referred to has not finished:
3) Actions repeated in an unspecified period between the past and now:
4) Actions completed in the very recent past (+just):
5) When the precise time of the action is not important or not known:
The present perfect in English is used chiefly for completed past actions or events, when no particular past time frame is specified or implied for them (it is understood that it is the present result of the events that is significant, rather than their actual occurrence). When a past time frame (a point of time in the past, or period of time which ended in the past) is specified for the event, explicitly or implicitly, the simple past is used rather than the present perfect.
This tense may be said to be a sort of mixture of present and past. It always implies a strong connection with the present and chiefly used in conversations, letters, newspapers and TV and radio reports.
It can also be used for ongoing or habitual situations continuing up to the present time (and not necessarily completed), particularly in describing for how long or since when something has been the case. In this case the present perfect progressive form is often used, if a continuing action is being described.
For examples, see Uses of English verb forms: Present perfect, as well as the sections of that article relating to the simple past, present perfect progressive, and other perfect forms.
Modern German does not have a perfect aspect in the present tense. The present perfect form implies the perfective aspect, and colloquially usually replaces the simple past (except in the verb sein "to be"), although the simple past still is frequently used in non-colloquial and/or narrative registers. For this reason, the present perfect form is often called in German the "conversational past", while the simple past is often called the "narrative past".
- Ich habe gegessen (I have eaten)
- Du bist gekommen (You have come, literally you are come.)
- Sie sind gefallen (They have fallen, literally they are fallen.)
- Sie ist geschwommen (She has swum, literally, she is swum.)
- Du hast dich beeilt (You have hurried, literally You have yourself hurried)
French has no present perfect aspect. However, it has a grammatical form that is constructed in the same way as is the present perfect in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, using a conjugated form of (usually) avoir "to have" plus a past participle. The term passé composé (literally "compound past") is the standard name for this form, which has perfective aspect rather than perfect aspect. The French simple past form, which also conveys perfective aspect, is analogous to the German simple past in that it has been largely displaced by the compound past and relegated to narrative usage; but in French the displacement is greater, to the point that the simple past sounds archaic (whereas in German it merely sounds narrative).
In standard French, any verb being used reflexively takes être ("to be") rather than avoir ("to have") as auxiliary in compound past tenses (passé composé, plus-que-parfait, passé antérieur, futur antérieur). In addition, a small set of about 20 non-reflexive verbs also use être as auxiliary (students memorize these using the acrostic mnemonic "DR & MRS VAN DER TRAMP").
- J'ai mangé (I have eaten)
- Tu es venu(e) (You have come, literally you are come.)
- Nous sommes arrivé(e)s (We have arrived, literally we are arrived.)
- Vous vous êtes levé(e)(s) (You have gotten up, reflexive verb,literally you are gotten up.)
The Spanish present perfect form conveys a true perfect aspect. Standard Spanish is like English in that haber is always the auxiliary regardless of the reflexive voice and regardless of the verb in question. For example
I have eaten (Yo he comido)
They have gone (Ellos han ido)
He has played (Él ha jugado)
Spanish differs from French, German, and English in that its have cognate, haber, serves only as auxiliary in the modern language; it never indicates possession, which is handled instead by the verb tener.
In some forms of Spanish, such as the Rio Platense Spanish spoken in Argentina, the present perfect is rarely used: the simple past replaces it. In Castilian Spanish, however, the present perfect is extremely common when talking about events that occur "today". For example, if referring to "this morning", one would say me he levantado tarde y no me ha dado tiempo de desayunar (I woke up late and didn't have time to eat breakfast) rather than me desperté muy temprano y no tuve tiempo de desayunar. With no context, listeners would assume that the latter occurred yesterday or a long time ago. For the same reason, speakers of Castilian Spanish use the present perfect when talking about the immediate past (events having occurred only a few moments ago), such as ¿Qué has dicho? No te he podido oír rather than ¿Qué dijiste? No te pude oír. (What did you say? I couldn't hear you.)
The Portuguese present perfect form conveys a true perfect aspect. Modern Portuguese differs from Spanish in that the auxiliary used is normally ter (cf. Spanish tener) rather than haver (cf. Spanish haber). Furthermore, the meaning of the present perfect is different from that in Spanish in that it implies an iterative aspect.:pp. 80-81 Eu tenho comido translates "I have been eating" rather than "I have eaten". (However, other tenses are still as in Spanish, e.g. eu tinha comido means "I had eaten" in modern Portuguese, cf. Spanish yo había comido.)
The word "perfect" in the name comes from a Latin root referring to completion, rather than to perfection in the sense of "having no flaws". (In fact this "flawless" sense of perfect evolved by extension from the former sense, because something being created is finished when it no longer has any flaws.) Perfect tenses are named thus because they refer to actions that are finished with respect to the present (or some other time under consideration); for example, "I have eaten all the bread" refers to an action which is, as of now, completed. However, as seen above, not all uses of present perfect constructions involve an idea of completion.
In the grammar of languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek, the form most closely corresponding to the English "present perfect" is known simply as the perfect. For more information see the article Perfect (grammar).
- A Practical English Grammar, A.J.Thamson and A.V.Martinet 2001, ISBN 0194313476 P 166.
- Comrie, Bernard, Tense, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.