Perfect Tenses

Introduction

Perfection is hard to achieve in life. Luckily, in grammar it is a lot easier: usually, all it takes is an auxiliary verb. We use perfect tenses to refer to actions that took place before other actions. In other words, perfect tenses are about the connection between two points in time, one taking place before the other. This is achieved by using a compound verb made of the auxiliary have and a past participle (V3).

Examples:

Our journey has come to an end.

I have had the same watch ever since I was a kid.

Have you seen this man?

Each of the three basic tenses – past, present, and future – has a perfect equivalent, used for denoting something that happened before a given time. Perfect verbs can also take the continuous form in all tenses, and be either in the active or passive voice.

Examples:

We have been saying the same thing this whole time!

Martha has been seen at the bank this morning.

Present Perfect

Present perfect verbs point to things that happened before the present moment (of the text) and are either still ongoing, or have finished but still have some influence or connection to the present.

Examples:

John has lived in London for his entire life (meaning: John now lives in London).

The baby has finally finished crying (meaning: the baby is now quiet).

I have not eaten a hamburger in seven years.

Past Perfect

Past perfect verbs refer to an action that took place before the “main” past of the sentence, i.e. the point of time we would refer to when using the “regular” past.

Examples:

Jack had already gone home yesterday morning (meaning: Jack was home in the sentence’s past).

Mary had finished studying long before her friends (meaning: Mary and her friends all finished studying in the sentence’s past, but Mary had finished first).

Future Perfect

As one might expect, future perfect verbs are used for talking about a point in time after the completion of a certain action. When the future perfect tense is used with an expression of present time (e.g. “now”), it conveys a sense of speculation or hypothesis. In the future perfect tense, the auxiliary “have” is not conjugated – i.e. it always keeps the same form.

Examples:

By the end of this year, I will have read at least ten books (meaning: I will be after already reading ten books).

Anna will have finished working by now (meaning: Anna has probably finished working, but we do not know that for sure).

Perfect Tenses in Compound Sentences

As mentioned earlier, perfect tenses are used for pointing to a connection between two points in time, one taking place before the other. Therefore, it is common to find perfect verbs in compound sentences – meaning, in sentences containing at least two verb clauses.

Examples:

Dan has not said a single word since he came home.

Seeing this movie made me realize I had been wrong all this time.

The match had started well before we arrived.

By the time the bell rings, all of the students will have left class (in this sentence, although the first clause is in the present, it has a future meaning).

Conditional and Modal Perfect

Perfect tenses are also used in conditional and modal verb forms, such as would have, could have, should have, must have and might have. Conditional and modal perfect verbs signify an event in the past with a conditional or modal meaning. Forms such as would/could/should have have a hypothetical meaning, i.e. they refer to something that did not happen.

Examples:

You should have warned me about the high prices!

Of course I would have warned you, if only I had known about the high prices.

Such inconvenience could have been avoided.