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Teaching the relationships between syntax and semantics: English verb tenses and their uses:

Describe the uses of the Present Perfect Tense in English


General statements concerning the use of the Present Perfect Tense emphasize the connection between present and past:

However, broad definitions like these are of limited help. A closer analysis of the "past - present" relation is in my view the first stepping stone to the question of use. This would take account of meaning as given, for example, through intonation and stress or through the presence, nature or absence of adverbials.

Every English Grammar has its system of categorization. I have found that the categories formulated by Leech in
Meaning and the English Verb [30/11/2004] provide a clear understanding of the "past-present" aspect as well as indicating some important functions of the Present Perfect Tense.


The main contexts in which The Present Perfect tense is used in the English language:

It is used in conversations (a wealth of examples in everyday English) , letters, newspapers, radio reports, prayers, reports. Within these contexts the Present Perfect Tense has a variety of individual functions.


1. The Present Perfect is used with "State Verbs". Verbs normally used to refer to "states" include BE, LIVE, BELONG, LAST, LIKE, STAND, KNOW, HAVE and CONTAIN.

"state" is undifferentiated and lacking in defined limits: e.g. How long have you lived in Brighton? I've lived in Brighton for two years / since 1977.

Here, as in most examples of the Present Perfect Tense applied to states, an adverbial is present and there is no suggestion that the statement may not be true of the future as well as being true of the period lasting up to the present moment.

2. Verbs normally used to refer to "events" include: JUMP, GET, PUT, LAND, BEGIN, FIND, HIT, FALL, GO. An "event" has a beginning and an end; it may be part of a sequence of events or happenings, so it can therefore be viewed as a whole entity.

2.[a] I have never eaten frogs legs, drunk port or flown in a helicopter. / He has just fallen over. / She has claimed unemployment benefit for the last five years. / We've finished our work.

The question HAVE YOU EVER.? Occurs frequently in conversation, in discussion about past experiences

2.[b] is frequent in conversation where short-term memory plays a fundamental part. The actuality of JUST & ALREADY explains why this use of the Present Perfect is especially common in news bulletins, letters and reports & summaries used in everyday conver

Mrs T. has just arrived in Moscow. She's already met 2 of the country's leading dissidents. Dear Maria, I've just received your card from Barcelona.

In news bulletins, Past Simple & Past Perfect are used with much more frequency than Present Perfect. The Indefinite Past does not tell you exactly when. (at six o'clock this morning / three hours ago .. Incompatible with Present Perfect).

Present Perfect used in criticism: The Gov't has doubled prices, lengthened dole queues. Connection with the present - what is wrong now. Also achievements.

3. Habit in a period leading up to the present - an adverbial of duration is usually required. "She has claimed SS as long as I can remember". Without the adverbial of duration the example would suggest the indefinite past.

The extra addition of an adverbial of frequency is often witnessed: "My typewriter has been serviced every year since I bought it."


Adverbials of time and their compatibility with different English verb tenses

Leech's points of orientation - they affect the choice of adverbials. The Present Perfect relates past time more directly to the present point of orientation "now". See Adverbials in relation to Perfect and Past (Leech).

Adverbials occuring with the Past Simple but precluding the Present Perfect: A WEEK AGO, EARLIER THIS YEAR, LAST MONDAY, THE OTHER DAY, YESTERDAY EVENING.

Adverbials which are most likely found in the Past Simple but can occur in an indefinite or iterative sense in the Present Perfect: AT FOUR O'CLOCK, IN THE MORNING, ON TUESDAY, THEN, SOON, NEXT, AFTER BREAKFAST. I've always done my HW in the evenings.

Adverbials which may accompany the Present Perfect but not the Past Simple include FOR THE PRESENT, FOR NOW, FOR THE TIME BEING.

Adverbials which are normally associated with the Present Perfect as opposed to the Past Simple, are SO FAR, UP TO NOW, HITHERTO, SINCE THURSDAY, SINCE I MET HER and LATELY & LATTERLY (recent indefinite past)

The group of adverbials which combine with either Present Perfect or Past Simple is interesting in so far as it indicates cases where the two tenses are interchangeable as well as instances where the actual meaning depends on the tense.

ALWAYS, EVER and NEVER can be used either with the Present Perfect or Past Simple: I've always said / I always said. He's always been a liar / He always was a liar.

NOW & ONCE: Now I've nearly finished my tea. Now it was nearly dark (for "then). I've visited Toledo once / Once I was innocent (at one time). Meaning change.

ALREADY, STILL, YET & BEFORE relate to point of orientation "now" when used with the Present Perfect and "then" when used with the Past Simple.

I've already finished it (as early as now) / I was already very tired (as early as then).

Other adverbials which combine with both tenses are: TODAY, THIS MONTH, THIS YEAR, THIS CENTURY, THIS MORNING, TONIGHT, THIS MARCH, THIS CHRISTMAS, RECENTLY, JUST (chiefly in the affirmative), LATELY & LATTERLY.

A common worry among Advanced level students is differentiation of Present Perfect Simple & Present Perfect Continuous tenses. Note the temporary nature of the situations which the Continuous is used to describe. Temporariness and possible non-completion.

Note that only the Present Perfect Simple (not the Continuous tense) is used with verbs describing states of "having" and "being".


Uses of the Present Perfect Continuous or Progressive tense

The Present Perfect Continuous can also be used in cases 1-4 (not 5) , though it is commonly used without adverbial reinforcement in category 1 "State verbs".

It would be artificial to attempt to teach the Present Perfect with overt reference to categories 1-5. Happily the textbooks provide a mixed bag of Present Perfects.

There is no problem of illustration since each of the categories mentined leads directly into the language of everyday conversation. Moreover, there is no shortage of adverbials in the English Language.

Given the abundance of living examples of use, the key to recognition of the Present Perfect Tense rests with the knowledge of time relations and all other aids to meaning and the ability to harness this knowledge for purposes of differentiation.


Books on the relationship between English grammar (e.g. verb tenses) and use

  1. Meaning and the English Verb Geoffrey Leech [09/09/2004] a classic, in my view the best of the books listed here. Especially helpful for essays relating 'language function' to 'syntax or form': e.g. "what are the main uses of the Present Perfect?"

  2. A Communicative Grammar of English Geoffrey Leech, Jan Svartvik [06/01/2003] should appeal to teachers or learners requiring explanations of grammar in the context of meaning

  3. Teaching Tenses: Ideas for Presenting and Practising Tenses in English [25/07/2002] by Rosemary Aitken

  4. Grammar for English Language Teachers (2nd Edition) with Exercises and a Key [29/01/2010] by Martin Parrot

  5. The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning by Michael Lewis - (available used, but at a very high price). Michael Lewis is known for the Lexical Approach to English language learning and teaching, which he has written about in another work.

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