The Present Perfect
§ 15. The Present Perfect is an analytical form which is built up by means of the auxiliary verb to have in the Present Indefinite and the participle of the notional verb (e.g. I have worked. He has worked, etc.) – (On the formation of the participle see «[shal]Verbs», § 5 and Appendix.) The same auxiliary is used to form the interrogative and negative forms (e.g. Have you worked? Has he worked? It has not worked. They have not worked). In spoken English the contracted forms I’ve, he’s, she’s, it’s, we’ve, you’ve and they’ve are used in affirmative sentences and haven’t and hasn’t in negative sentences.
§ 16. The Present Perfect falls within the time sphere of the present and is not used in narration where reference is made to past events. It follows from that that the Present Perfect is used in present-time contexts, i.e. conversations, newspaper and radio reports, lectures and letters.
The Present Perfect has three distinct uses. They will be further referred to as Present Perfect I, Present Perfect II and Present Perfect III.
1) Present Perfect I is the Present Perfect proper. It is used to express an accomplished action which is viewed from the moment of speaking as part of the present situation. Attention in this case is centred on the action itself. The circumstances under which the action occurred appear unimportant and immaterial at the moment and need not be mentioned.
e.g. He is very sensitive, I have discovered that.
I’ve had a talk with him. He says he has all the proof he wants.
Such news! We’ve bought a racehorse.
«I’ve spoiled everything,» she said.
His secretary said tactfully: «I’ve put off your other appointments for a while.»
It should be especially noted that though the action expressed in the Present Perfect is regarded as already accomplished, it belongs to the present-time sphere and is treated as a present action. It becomes obvious from the periphrasis:
I’ve heard the doctor’s opinion —> I know the doctor’s opinion.
She’s gone off to the woods —> She is in the woods.
A similar idea of an accomplished action is also traced in such expressions referring to the present as He is awake. I’m late. The
work is done. The door is locked, etc.
Since it is the action itself that the Present Perfect makes important, it is frequently used to open up conversations (newspaper and radio reports, or letters) or to introduce a new topic in them. However, if the conversation (report or letter) continues on the same subject, going into detail, the Present Perfect usually changes to the Past Indefinite, as the latter is used to refer to actions or situations which are definite in the mind of the speaker. Usually (but not necessarily) some concrete circumstances of the action (time,place, cause, purpose, manner, etc.) are mentioned in this case.
e.g. «You are all right. You are coming round. Are you feeling better?» «I’m quite all right. But what has happened? Where am I?» «You’re in a dug-out. You were buried by a bomb from a trench-mortar.» «Oh, was I? But how did I get here?»
«Someone dragged you. I am afraid some of your men were killed, and several others were wounded.»
‘Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat,
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat,
Where have you been?’
‘I’ve been to London
To look at the Queen.’
’What did you see there?’
’I saw a little mouse
Under her chair.»
As is seen from the above examples, the Present Perfect is used to name a new action, whereas the Past Indefinite is used to refer back to a definite action and the attention in this case is often drawn rather to the circumstances attending the action than to the action itself.
Note. The functions of the Present Perfect and the Past Indefinite may be in a way compared with those of the indefinite and the definite articles.
The indefinite article is used when an object is just named (e.g. Give me a book. She is a teacher. I have a brother). Likewise the Present Perfect serves to name an accomplished action (see the examples above).
Both the definite article and the Past Indefinite are used when an object or an action, respectively, is definite in the mind of the speaker (e.g. The book is on the table. The teacher returned the compositions.)
As has been said, Present Perfect I is mainly used to introduce a new topic. But it may also be used to sum up a situation.
e.g. «I’ve done bad things,» I said, «but I don’t think I could have done some of the things you’ve done.»
«You’ve so often been helpful in the past.» «I’ve tried,» said Joseph.
We’ve all been young once, you know. We’ve all felt it, Roy.
«I’m afraid I’ve been horribly boring and talked too much,» she said as she pressed my hand.
«Agatha has told me everything. How cleverly you have both kept your secret,»
«You and your wife have been very good to me. Thank you.»
In accordance with its main function — just to name an accomplished action — the Present Perfect is generally used when
the time of the action is not given.
e.g. He sat down. «You have not changed,» he said. «No? What have you come for?» «To discuss things.»
«Mr Руке has told me such wonderful things about you. Walter.»
«I haven’t thought about it,» she returned.
However, sometimes, even though there may be no indication of past time in the sentence, the Present Perfect cannot be used because reference is made to happenings which are definite in the mind of the speaker (either because the action has already been mentioned or because the situation is very well known to the listener). In this case the use of the Past Indefinite is very common.
e.g. Did you sleep well?
I didn’t understand you.
Did you enjoy the play?
Did you have a good journey
Did you like the book? (trip, ride, flight, day, time)?
What did you say?
Did you see the accident?
Did you hear what he said?
I’m sorry I lost my temper.
I didn’t hear your question.
It is possible, however, to use the Present Perfect when there is an adverbial modifier of time in the sentence that denotes a period of time which is not over yet, e.g. today, this morning, this week, this month, this year, etc.
e.g. What Rosanna has done tonight is clear enough, (Tonight is not over yet.)
This year we have taken only one assistant. (This year is not over.)
I have had only one new dress this summer,» exclaimed June. (This summer is not over yet.)
Conversely, if the period is over or reference is made to a particular past point of time within that period, the Past Indefinite is used.
e.g. «Did you see the letter in the «Times» this morning? (It is no longer morning.) «No. I haven’t had time to look at a paper today.» (Today is not over yet.)
«Whom do you think I passed in Richmond Park today!» (Today is not over, but the action took place at a particular point of time within today, namely when the person was in Richmond Park.)
«I wasn’t very well this morning, but I’m perfectly all right now.» (This morning is over.)
Note. It should be noted that sometimes an adverbial modifier of place points to a past period of time.
e.g. Did you see him at the theatre? (= when you were at the theatre)
I ran into her in Oxford Street. (= when I was in Oxford Street)
The Present Perfect may be found with certain adverbs of indefinite time and frequency such as just (‘только что’), not … yet, already, before, always, ever, never, often, seldom, recently, lately, of late, etc.
e.g. She’s just missed being run over.
I haven’t even had coffee yet.
He has never made a sixpence by any of his books.
Have you heard of him lately?
«What is the point?» «I’ve made it clear enough before.»
However, the use of the Present Perfect is by no means obligatory with the above mentioned adverbs, because any other finite form may be used with these adverbs if it is required by the situation.
e.g. He was studying to be a pianist, but he never touches the piano now.
He noticed that the leaves of the chestnut were already beginning to turn yellow and brown.
His room was not yet furnished, and he liked it to remain empty.
Note 1. Note the use of the Past Indefinite with just now.
e.g. I told you just now I had never had time for much fun.
Note 2. Russian students of English, under the influence of the Russian language, tend to use the adverb already nearly in every sentence containing the Present Perfect. That is not characteristic of the English language as it is sufficient to use the Present Perfect alone to express an accomplished action. The addition of already appears redundant in many cases.
It follows from the rules above that the Present Perfect is not used when there is an indication of past time in the sentence. It is the Past Indefinite that is used in this case because the mention of the definite past time ties the action to the past-time sphere as it were, and it cannot break through to the present.
e.g. «Put on your clothes at once and come with me.» «But what is it? Has something happened?» «I’m afraid so. Your
husband was taken ill this afternoon.»
«M. Poirot, you have no idea of what I have gone through.»
«I know your wife died just over a year ago.»
Similarly, it is the Past Indefinite that is used in questions introduced by when.
e.g. When did you actually arrive?
When did you change your mind?
The Past Indefinite is also used in special questions beginning with where and how when they refer to the past events. The Present Perfect is not common here because the attention in such sentences is drawn to the circumstances of the action rather than to the occurrence itself, which means that the speaker has a definite action in mind.
e.g. «Where did your uncle receive his guests?» «Right here.»
«How did he get in?» I asked, and Evans said, «Oh, he has a key.»
«Where is my hat? Where did I leave my hat?»
Note. The question Where have you been? can be asked of the person who has just come.
e.g. ‘Hello, Mum. I’m sorry I’m late» «Where have you been?»
In all other cases it should be Where were you!
e.g. «Did the party go off nicely?» «I don’t know. I wasn’t there.» «Where were you?’
In special questions beginning with interrogative words other than those mentioned above (e.g. who, what, why, what … for and other), both the Present Perfect and the Past Indefinite are possible. The choice depends on the meaning to be conveyed. If reference is made to an action which is past or definite in the minds of the people speaking, or if there is a change of scene, the Past Indefinite is used; if reference is made to an action which is still valid as part of the present situation, the Present Perfect should be used.
e.g. «What have I done against you?» she burst out defiantly.»Nothing.» «Then why can’t we get on?»
«I know she gave him a good scolding.» «What did he do?»
Looking up at her he said: «Dorothy’s gone to a garden party.» «I know. Why haven’t you gone too?»
Why didn’t you speak to my father yourself on the boat?
Note 1. As to general questions, the Present Perfect as well as the Past Indefinite may be found in them because they may inquire either about new facts which are important for the present or about events that are definite in the mind of the speaker.
Note 2. In the following example the verb to be is used in the meaning ‘to visit’, ‘to go’. Hence it takes the preposition to after it. It is noteworthy that to be acquires this meaning only if used in the Present Perfect or the Past Perfect.
e.g. Renny said: «He has been to Ireland too»
«Have you been to a symphony concert?» he continued.
Note 3. The combination has/have got may be used as the Present Perfect of the verb to get (which is not very common, though).
e.g. I don’t know what’s got into Steven today.
He has got into financial difficulties and needs cash.
But it is often used as a set phrase which has two different meanings — ‘to possess’ (a) and ‘to be obliged’ (b).
e.g. a) «Have you got a telephone?» she looked round the room.
«I don’t think we’ve got any choice,» said Francis.
b) «No» he said loudly, «there are some risks you’ve got to take.»
«It doesn’t matter what caused it,» said Martin. «We have got to take the consequences»
In this case the time reference also changes — has/have got is the Present Perfect only in form; it actually indicates a present state of things.
Note 4. She is gone is a survival of the old Present Perfect which was formed with certain verbs by means of the auxiliary to be. In present-day English it is to be treated as a set phrase meaning ’she is not here any longer’.
2) Present Perfect II serves to express an action which began before the moment of speaking and continues into it or up to it.
This grammatical meaning is mainly expressed by the Present Perfect Continuous (see «Verbs», § 18). However, the Present Perfect
Non-Continuous is found in the following cases:
a) Its use is compulsory with stative verbs (see «Verbs», §2, 2).
e.g. I’ve known the young lady all her life.
I’ve loved her since she was a child.
«But we’ve been in conference for two hours,» he said. «It’s time we had a tea break.»
b) With some dynamic verbs of durative meaning the Present Perfect is sometimes used instead of the Present Perfect Continuous with little difference in meaning.
e.g. «It’s a pretty room, isn’t it?» «I’ve slept in it for fifteen years.»
«I’m glad to meet you,» he said. «I’ve waited a long while and began to be afraid I’d not have the opportunity.»
He’s looked after Miss Gregg for many years now.
As to terminative verbs, they can only have the meaning of Present Perfect I and never of Present Perfect II.
Since it is often difficult to draw the line between durative and terminative verbs, it is recommended that students of English should use the Present Perfect Continuous with all dynamic verbs to express an action begun in the past and continued into the present.
c) The Present Perfect is preferred to the Present Perfect Continuous in negative sentences, when it is the action itself that is completely negated (see also «Verbs», § 19).
e.g. «Shall we sit down a little? We haven’t sat here for ages.»
«I was just having a look at the paper,» he said. «I haven’t read the paper for the last two days.»
«She hasn’t written to me for a year,» said Roy.
It is noteworthy that Present Perfect II is associated with certain time indications — either the whole period of the duration of the action is marked or its starting point. In the former case we find different time indications. Some expressions are introduced by the preposition for and sometimes in (e.g. for an hour, for many years, for the last few days, for a long time, for so long, for ages, in years, in a long while, etc.) – Other expressions have no prepositions (e.g. these three years, all this week, all along, so long, all oneys life, etc.).
e.g. The picture has been mine for years and years.
I’ve felt differently about him for some time.
«Why haven’t I seen you all these months?» said Hankins.
We haven’t had any fun in a long while.
I’ve wanted to go to the sea all my life.
The starting point of the action is indicated by the adverb since, a prepositional phrase with since or a clause introduced by the conjunction since.
e.g. «But, Dinny, when did you meet him?» «Only ten days ago, but I’ve seen him every day since.»
The sun has been in the room since the morning.
But she has seemed so much better since you started the injections.
In the clause introduced by since the Past Indefinite is used to indicate the starting point of an action (see the example above).
However, we sometimes find in both parts of such complex sentences two parallel actions which began at the same time in the past and continue into the present. In this case the Present Perfect is used in both clauses,
e.g. I’ve loved you since I’ve known you.
It should be noted that the indication of time is indispensable to
Present Perfect II because otherwise its meaning in most cases
would be changed. It would come to denote an accomplished action
which is part of the present situation (for this see Present Perfect I).
Cf. I’ve been taught to do it for three years.
I have been taught to do it.
But we met him here about a month ago. We haven’t heard
from him since.
We haven’t heard from him.
Care should be taken to distinguish between the use of the
Present Perfect and the Past Indefinite when the period of dura-
tion is expressed by a prepositional phrase with for. If the period of
duration belongs to the past time sphere, the Past Indefinite should
be used. It is only if the period of duration comes close to the mo-
ment of speaking or includes it that the Present Perfect is used.
Cf. «I have lived like this,» he said, «for two years, and I can’t
stand it any more.»
«I teach History at a secondary school. I went to the Universi-
ty here for four years and got a degree.»
The same is true of questions beginning with how long.
«Are you married?» «Yes.» «How long have you been mar-
«Are you married?» «No. I’m divorced.» «How long were you
3) Present Perfect III is found in adverbial clauses of time in-
troduced by the conjunctions when, before, after, as soon as, till
and until where it is used to express a future action. It shows that
the action of the subordinate clause will be accomplished before
the action of the principal clause (which is usually expressed by
the Future Indefinite). This use of the Present Perfect is structur-
ally dependent as it is restricted only to the above mentioned type
e.g. «You’ll find,» said Fred, «that you’ll long for home when you
have left it.»
As soon as we have had some tea, Ann, we shall go to inspect
I’ll take you back in my car but not till I’ve made you some
Sometimes the Present Indefinite is found in this type of claus-
es in the same meaning as the Present Perfect. The choice of the
form depends on the lexical meaning of the verb. With durative
verbs the Present Perfect is necessary.
e.g. When you have had your tea, we’ll see about it.
I can tell you whether the machine is good or bad when I
have tried it.
With terminative verbs the use of both forms is possible,
Cf. He says when he retires he’ll grow roses.
When I’ve finished this I must go and put the baby to bed.
Mother will stay at home until we return.
«Your mother wouldn’t like me.» «You can’t possibly say that
until you’ve met her.»