Don't tense up with tenses. How to become the master of the past, the present and the future. Part II
In the previous issue of Sell It in English readers had the opportunity to get acquainted with simple and progressive (continuous) tenses, time frames and placing actions expressed in these tenses in time. I did not want to present the subject in a conventional manner, therefore I didn’t approach it like classic textbooks do. This time, on the other hand, I will occasionally refer to definitions or descriptions which are typical for textbooks from which one can learn English. Nevertheless, I still believe that understanding tenses and how the actions they describe relate to time can be an interesting and inspiring journey into the realm of English grammar. So, I will not fully deviate from the style I used in the previous articles.
Perfect tenses — the domain of 'have'
In order not to bore the readers right from the start, I will save the technicalities of perfect tenses for later. I would like to begin deliberating over them by looking at them holistically, as a family of tenses. There are six perfect tenses (simple and progressive in past, present and future). The big question is—do they have anything in common? Is there a superior principle governing their usage or maybe a single distinctive quality? The answer is: ‘Yes, there is.’
Perfect tenses are governed by one verb - 'to have'. The verb ‘to have’ is the auxiliary verb which helps to build them. It does not carry any meaning; however, it points to the fact that perfect tenses set an anchor for an action which is located in some time before a certain point in time. This point in time is what all actions relate to. In Past Perfect this will mostly be another action expressed in Past Simple—the latter sets the point before which something else happened. In Present Perfect this will always be the actual NOW—the time of speaking; each action described by Present Perfect must have taken place before NOW. In Future Perfect the point in time before which the action is finished is usually expressed by specific time, a time phrase or another action equivalent to them.
Understanding Present Perfect tense
Present Perfect - the curse of all learners. On my way to becoming proficient I have also had difficulties with interpreting it correctly. It was like an epiphany to me when I finally understood whether to use Past Simple or Present Perfect. I noticed that the biggest trouble had been caused by wrong interpretation of the most common description of the usage, which goes: Present Perfect tense is used to talk about a past activity whose result is still valid or visible in the present. It is not ‘a one official’ definition—it is rather an attempt of teachers to pack it nicely in a comprehensive and digestive form. Later, when I list the typical textbook descriptions of the usages you will see that the aforementioned pertains literally only to one usage.
‘The result in the present’, however, shifts the attention of learners in the wrong direction. They start to focus only on the results in the present as it is easy to remember and quite easy to understand. Let’s take one of the most popular examples:
She has cut her hair.
In a given context it is obvious that she has visited a hairdresser when a person who knows her can notice the difference immediately. Something actually happened in the past but the result (cut hair) is clearly visible in the present. This logic works fine as long as the learners do not talk about an activity which they had no idea how to interpret—are the results valid or visible or not. And then the big philosophical concept is brought up—each action causes reaction, so if we wanted, we could find a present result of any action which occurred in the past. That is why we must stop clinging to this interpretation. Of course, it will be clear to us later that it is true for every sentence in Present Perfect, but only after do we focus on the time period within which this tense is applied!
Understanding Present Perfect requires realizing the fact that it is a PRESENT tense. Even if we translate an English sentence built in Present Perfect to a past sentence in our own language, it does not mean that Present Perfect fully belongs to the past. It will always be attached, somehow connected, to the present. Therefore, we must start looking at the present as if it were time encompassing the past and the NOW.
If you read the article in the previous issue, you probably remember my deliberations on the notion of the NOW and the PRESENT. I found that the concepts are symbolic—the NOW does not really exist as time passes incessantly and the PRESENT actually spans both the past and the future. This observation lets us understand that the past can be an inherent part of the present. Therefore, the occurrence of a past action doesn’t immediately have to mean that the action has no impact on the present, that the action would not be repeated until NOW, or that the action, and more precisely the state, does not last anymore.
The time period within which Present Perfect is established is considered a present period. This is a key to handling this tense skilfully. Even if an activity was a single, complete one, and finished somewhere in the past, it will always resonate with the NOW—the state resulting from that activity will still be valid. Sometimes we are referring to the NOW which had its beginning in the past and we are placing the whole state or activity within this current period which is not finished yet.