Perfecting the Perfect Tenses

What’s so perfect about the perfect tenses? Why do we call it that, and why can’t I just use the past simple tense?

Why Perfect?

In the beginning there was Latin, and Latin had a perfect tense. The Latin for perfect is perfectus meaning completed.

Latin speakers used the perfect tense to speak about any complete action in the past. In English, we have two verb forms to do this. The past simple and the present perfect.

What’s special about the perfect?

Perfect tenses talk about the completion, or the result of an action (the result of seeing something is that you have seen it). The exact time the action happened isn’t important.

The perfect tenses show that something was completed before another time.

With the present perfect, we are considering the present time, now. With the past perfect, we are considering the time of another event that happened a little more recently in the past.

Perfect Tenses

Present Perfect

With the present perfect, we keep some link to the present. Think about your life experiences. The events may be finished, but your experience and your memory is still alive and you still see how these events affect you now.

In the first diagram above, the person speaking has taken the car. We can see this result in the present because the car isn’t at the home of the owner.

Past Perfect

With the past perfect, we keep a link between two events in the past. In the second diagram, I ate some cake and this affected the answer to my friend’s question.

Have a look at another example below:

Past Perfect

The time in consideration is when the person turned 18. Everything happened before that. The exact time of all these events isn’t important.

Past Simple vs Present Perfect

When should you use the past simple, and when should you use the present perfect then?

Use the present perfect:

When talking about things that recently finished (with “just”)

“I have just finished doing yoga” – @Summer

“You have just bet 10$” – @Gamble Bot

To talk about when the result is more important

“yay I’ve lost all my money :D” – @anonymous

To talk about states that started in the past and still continue

“I’ve been here about 2 weeks” – @Olympia

with unfinished time words*

“The best thing I’ve seen today is baby shark” – @Grammar

with words and phrases that are connected to the present **

“I’ve learnt recently that prey mammals usually sleep 4 hours per day” – @anonymous

When the time is not defined

“I’VE BEEN SUMMONED” – @Anima

Use the past simple:

For events that are not connected to the present

“Beep! I was born in Autumn :3” – @Summer

For a series of events in the past

“I fell asleep and had a sleep paralysis” – @Summer

When one action interrupts a continuous action in the past

“I was fixing something on the bot when you typed “pending” sorry ;)” – @anonymous

With finished time words*

“I saw the ocean for the first time last year” – @anonymous

When the time is defined

“Even more since you left to buy cigarettes ten years ago” – @ohboi

*Finished and Unfinished Time

Unfinished time is something that still continues in some way. It is linked to the present. Finished time is something that no longer continues. We use finished time words with the past simple and unfinished time words with the present perfect.

FinishedUnfinished
yesterdaytoday
last week/month/yearthis week/month/year
in 2006since 2006
3 days agofor 3 days
so far

**Other words used with the present perfect

There are more words that are commonly used with the present perfect. Some of these can be used with other tenses too.

alwaysneverever
yetalreadyrecently
latelymany times# times

I hope that helped!

This is the end of the post.If you have any questions or comments, please get in contact! I will be writing more posts about this in the future, so keep your eyes peeled!

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Further reading

Here are some of the sources that I used for this article.

Latin Perfect tense, WikiBooks
A Brief History of Tense, Random Idea English
Origins of Perfect Tense, Stack Exchange English
How to Form the Latin Perfect Tense