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On Point: The Perfect Aspect

Category: Grammar | 2017-03-02

The Perfect Aspect: Looking Back

We are going to take a look into the perfect aspect and how it affects the meaning of verbs. We will look at its composition and uses, as well as some examples. By the end, I hope you’ll better understand how to use the perfect forms in your day-to-day English.

Clearing The Air

Now, before we get too deep into the perfect aspect of English, let’s clear up a few things. First, we have to look at how many tenses there are in English. This is a question I ask in all of my classes, and not surprisingly, almost nobody gets it right. I doubt that many native speakers would either, unless they work in the English grammar field. So, let’s see. How many tenses are there in English? After asking this, I look around and always see the same thing…students rolling their eyes upwards, counting in their heads. I see them listing off different tenses…present simple, future 1 and future 2, past continuous, and so on. Eventually, they start to speak up. “Sixteen” says the first one, “Eight” says the next one. And so on, and so on.

Well, how many tenses are there? Two. Past and present. No more, no less. Wait a minute, what about future? If we look at the future – “I will work tomorrow” – what tenses are there? “Will” is a modal in the present tense. Ok, what about present perfect? Well, it is exactly that. It is the present tense in the perfect aspect.   100% Perfect, the perfect tense, MacPherson Language Institute, MLISolutions, Grammar

What is an aspect? My teacher never told me about this. It’s sad to say, but I believe you. Unfortunately, most English teachers don’t teach the idea of aspect, but rather they lump them in as separate verb tenses. This, in my humble opinion, is a mistake.

Tense vs. Aspect

So, let’s look at what separates tense from aspect. As is often the case with things that are regularly confused, these both express information about the same idea. Here, that idea is time. We generally use the tense to describe the “when” of the event or action. Whereas, we use the aspect to describe the “how” information of the event. This may include the duration, completion or frequency of the action. Another way of looking at this is to say that tense expresses the location of an event in time. Aspect, on the other hand, describes the texture of the time in which the event takes place. Such as, a single point or continuous span of time, or a series of events within a period of time.

Let’s look at an example. Think about the following sentences: “I work”, “I am working”, “I have worked”, and “I have been working”. We know these are all present tense because of the present tense verb in each sentence (work, am, have). However, each one expresses a different relation to the present using different aspects. What separates these aspects is not the “when”, but the “how”. We view the action in terms of how it occurred within the time given, here it is the present. Is it complete, ongoing, habitual or a combination?

The Perfect Aspect

Now, let’s get to the heart of the perfect aspect. Why do we use it? What does this aspect consist of? Why is it called “Perfect”? These are all fair questions. So, let’s take a look, shall we?

First, the name “perfect” comes from the Latin “perfectus”, meaning completed. And grammatically, we find its roots in the aspects of several other languages. The perfect aspect is formed by the use of “have” followed by the participle of the main verb. This can be either past or present. For example, “I have worked” or “I have been working”. As I said earlier, the aspect describes the texture of the event within the time described by the tense. The nature of the perfect aspect is to indicate that an event occurred before the time implied by the tense.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  1. John has eaten.
  2. I had eaten.
  3. Jane will have eaten.
the perfect aspect, MacPherson Language Institute, Mr. Perfect, English Grammar, Learn English

Here, the first sentence is in the ‘present perfect’. As a result, the sentence means that John is not hungry now, because he ate at an earlier point in time. The time we are looking at is now, and how a previous event is influencing this time.

In the second sentence, we use the ‘past perfect’. As such, the idea being expressed is that I was not hungry then, because I ate before this point. We are looking at how a prior event affected the current point in our story.

The third sentence takes a look at the ‘future perfect’. Here, the meaning is that Jane won’t be hungry because she will eat before then. Or maybe, because she is eating now. We see how a past, current or future event will be relevant to a point further in the future.

To Sum It All Up

So, what we’ve seen here is that the perfect aspect relates a prior event to a later point in time. Effectively, with the perfect aspect, the tense tells us when the event is relevant, rather than when it happened. We commonly use it to emphasise results over details. Have a look at this sentence. “I can’t play football today, I have twisted my ankle.” It doesn’t say when or how I broke my ankle. It only tells us that today I can’t play football.

This is one of the most confusing points of the English language for the German students I teach. I certainly can’t teach it properly in a single blog post. It takes study, practice and the guidance of someone with experience. If you would like to learn more about this or other grammar points, please visit our Language Training page. There, you can find out more about our Business English, Exam Preparation and German Language courses.

Let’s Hear From You

I hope you have enjoyed this grammar lesson. Is this a topic you struggle with? What do you want to learn about next? Please post your questions or comments below. I want to hear from you! Cheers!

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