Grammar: perfect ‘tense’ – advanced points
Upper intermediate to advanced level (B2-C2)
Hopefully, you will already be familiar with common perfect constructions such as: ‘Have you ever been to Moscow?’, ‘I’ve already bought a ticket.’ or ‘He said he hadn’t seen it.’. However, for higher level English you need to become familiar with some other points.
The Perfect Aspect
Quick review of basic points
The perfect verb forms are often used to show a connection between two things, one occurring earlier than the other. This connection can be seen by the fact that a sentence using the present perfect can often be rewritten with a very similar meaning using the present tense . E.g.
I have passed my exam!
I am now qualified.
A technical note before we go any further
A tense can be defined as a verb form that indicates present, past and future time through changes to its spelling. If we accept this, English only has two tenses: present/general and past e.g. walk(s) and walked. According to some grammarians, using perfect (and continuous) verb forms is using verbal aspect rather than tenses.
Associations can help
One simple way to alert yourself to the need to use the perfect aspect with verbs is to remember that some words are often associated with perfect verb forms e.g. already, often, yet, still, since, just etc. For example:
Sorry, I have just eaten the last chocolate. (Recently completed)
I haven’t been to Cambridge yet. (But you plan to)
I’ve been here since April. (Continuing up to the present)
I still haven’t received the visa. (Nothing so far)
She had often been proved right. (Repeatedly)
They said they hadn’t received the payment yet. (But expect to, reported speech)
Note the standard position of these different ‘time words’.
The perfect aspect is often the right verb form to use when you want to convey ideas related to ideas of: completion, present result, recent news, repetition, continuing states/periods E.g.
I have finished my homework. (Now I no longer have any homework to do.)
I have failed my driving test. (You are now disappointed / You will have to wait to drive etc.)
Your letter has arrived. (Parent to a child when they see the postal delivery.)
We’ve been there plenty of times.
I’ve loved you since the first day. or He has never thanked her for her help.
Typically, the past perfect is used when we refer back from a point already in the past to show a connection between two things in the past e.g.
When I heard the news I was very surprised because I hadn’t seen it coming. (Cause)
We also often use the past perfect to explain to others what we planned to do when the plans etc didn’t happen. E.g.
Originally I had intended to be home for New Year (but I got the ‘flu).
I had hoped to see you last week. What happened?
She had intended to complete the paperwork but somehow never got round to doing it.
Note that in English the right verb structure often depends on what you mean to communicate. If you simply want to show that one thing happened after another where there is no ambiguity, you could just use the past simple twice. Using the perfect aspect shows that there is more in your meaning or the situation needs making clear.
Also note that with ‘before’ the ‘tense’ order may be reversed. This is seen when the first action (leaving) prevents the second (explaining) as in the example below:
She left before I’d had (had had) a chance to explain. (Her leaving happened first.)
With luck, I’ll have passed my Cambridge English: Proficiency by the summer. This refers to the future but we also sometimes use this structure for situations in the present or past for things that we think have probably happened or are the case e.g.
Take my word for it, he’ll have reached home by now.
I think they’ll have already done it.
However, with time clauses we don’t use will for future reference so we use a present perfect structure instead:
I’ll think about returning to work after I have recovered.
As soon as I have done it, I’ll let you know.
Until I’ve finished it, I don’t want anyone to know.
I don’t want to think about it before I have spoken to Victor.
This is quite a common structure with verbs like ‘appear’ and ‘seem’:
There seems to have been a misunderstanding.
He appears to have left. I can’t find him anywhere.
Perfect ‘ing’ forms
Used for reasons:
Having taken the test before, he felt at an advantage. (Because he had already taken the test, he felt he had an advantage.)
Having seen her reaction the first time, he felt quite nervous bringing up the matter again.
Used for focussing on time sequence:
I couldn’t recall having seen the thief’s face before.
Because of his intoxication he couldn’t remember having gone to that particular bar.
The choice of verb form is often a matter of intended meaning. As such, the context will often dictate what to use. At other times it can be more of a matter of emphasis, focus and clarity. In some cases you’ll even have a choice of different structures with very little or no difference in meaning. It takes time to master all this so prepare to be patient.