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A Journey with the Present Perfect, Part One

Everyday Grammar: The Present Perfect Tense
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Everyday Grammar: The Present Perfect Tense

A Journey With the Present Perfect, Part One
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Imagine that verbs, nouns, and other parts of language are competing with each other. One verb form or noun might beat a competing verb form or noun. Much like in the World Cup, the winners go to the next round and the losers no longer play.

Keep that comparison in mind as we explore today’s subject: the present perfect.

What is the present perfect?

Imagine you hear English speakers say the following words:

Do you want to get some dinner?

No thanks, I’ve already eaten dinner.

The second speaker said I’ve already eaten, short for I have already eaten. This is the present perfect.

It suggests that the action of eating has been completed.

In other words, the speaker ate at some point in the past. But the speaker is not eating now. Note that the word already suggests that the event took place before the present point in time.

Betty Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar describes the present perfect in terms of form and meaning. The form is have + past participle. The meaning, notes Azar, is that “the perfect tenses all give the idea that one thing happens before another time or event.”

Other grammar experts have explored the present perfect in a slightly different way.

In Understanding English Grammar, Martha Kolln and Robert Funk note that the present perfect can suggest a connection with the present.

Here is an example of what they mean:

Joe has lived in Washington DC since 1973.

In this example, the present perfect suggests that Joe began living in Washington DC in the past and continues to live there in the present. The word since followed by the year 1973 gives you a clue about the meaning.

These examples show you general ways in which the present perfect is used today. But the present perfect had different uses in the past. And it is also playing a part in a kind of language competition, as we will see.


Xinyue Yao is a language expert. In 2014, she explored the English present perfect in the Journal of English Linguistics.

Yao wrote that the modern present perfect came from the transitive have + past participle structure in Old English. In Old English, the structure often suggested a kind of possession.

Yao notes, a statement such as I have finished my work in Old English would be different in modern English. It would mean something closer to “I possess or have my work in a finished condition.”

But the possessive meaning was lost over time, Yao adds.

In the past, English speakers used a competing be + past participle structure to suggest completed actions. But that structure declined in use over time. In other words, the have + past participle structure won out.

Present of the present perfect

A 2018 paper in ORTESOL noted the difficulties in teaching the present perfect to English learners - especially learners of American English. One reason is that the present perfect is used much less often in American English.

Mina Gavell, the writer of the paper, noted the present perfect is being replaced “by its main competitor, the simple past” in American English.

She adds that the perfects, and especially the present perfect, “make up only 5 to 10 percent of spoken American English verb use, and are even less prevalent in speaking than writing.”

Prevalent is a term that means common or widespread.

Think back to the words you heard at the beginning of this report.

Do you want to get some dinner?

No thanks, I’ve already eaten dinner.

The second speaker used the present perfect. But, a speaker of American English might also use the simple past, as in:

Do you want to get some dinner?

No thanks, I already ate.

Closing thoughts

Today, we explored how the present perfect has competed – and does compete – for use.

In American English, the present perfect has been losing out to the simple past for some time. But, the present perfect is still in the game.

In other kinds of English, such as British English, the present perfect is more commonly used. And in Australian English, the present perfect can have a very interesting, unusual meaning. But that is a subject for a future report.

The next time you are reading a book, watching a film, or listening to the news, pay careful attention to the present perfect.

Keep notes about the times you hear or read it. Over time, you will begin to use it with great ease.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.


Words in This Story

past participle – n. grammar: the form of the verb that is used with “have” in perfect tenses and with “be” in passive constructions

clue – n. a piece of information or sign that helps a person find something or someone

transitive – adj. grammar, of a verb : having or taking a direct object