Yesterday, I looked at the present perfect simple tense, a tricky customer for people learning English. The progressive aspect can also of course be in the past and the future, and can be combined with the continuous (progressive) aspect. As with the present perfect simple, the perfect aspect always joins two different time periods together. The present perfect simple is the most common way you’ll use the perfect aspect, but let’s have a quick look at the other ways we use it:

Present Perfect Continuous

The second most-common way to use the perfect aspect. Often very similar to the present perfect simple, but generally used in a few specific ways:

  • to refer to an activity or state that began in the past and is incomplete: I’ve been painting the spare room. Contrast this with I’ve painted the spare room red (finished action, focus on the result).
  • to focus on the duration of an activity: We’ve been waiting here for hours!
  • With the verbs to work and to live, the simple and continuous forms can usually be used interchangeably, though the continuous form often feels more temporary: I’ve been working here for six months/I’ve worked here for six months.

Past Perfect

  • The simple form is used more commonly, and is identical to the present perfect, except for replacing have/has with had
  • when we’re already talking about something in the past, and want to refer to something that had happened at an earlier point in the past: When I arrived home the lock was broken: someone had broken in!
  • Commonly used in stories to refer to something that happened before the timeframe of the story, or at an earlier point in the story: He paused: he’d seen something like this before.
  • Can often be avoided, and replaced with the past simple, if it’s clear which action happened first, either because we use time markers like before or after, events are presented chronologically, or it’s simply obvious: I knew them before they were married/I had breakfast before I went to work.
  • The past perfect continuous is very similar to the present perfect continuous, focusing on an activity in progress before or up to a point in the past, and an activity’s duration: It was clear he’d been drinking/We’d been waiting for half an hour when the food finally arrived.

Future Perfect

  • Not very commonly used. Refers to an action or state before a point in the future.
  • Formed with will+have+past participle.
  • Can refer to a finished action (By the time I’m 40 I’ll have bought a house) or an unfinished state (By June I’ll have lived here for ten years.)
  • The continuous form can also be used to emphasise an activity’s duration, or to show that an action will be incomplete: By midnight we’ll have been drinking for six hours!

By now, we’ve had a look at all the major tenses in English:

  • present simple
  • present continuous
  • present perfect simple
  • present perfect continuous
  • past simple
  • past continuous
  • past perfect simple
  • past perfect continuous
  • future simple (will+verb)
  • future with going to
  • future perfect simple
  • future perfect continuous

It might be surprising to learn just how many tenses you use effortlessly and unconsciously every day in order to communicate effectively. But when you don’t have to learn them in a classroom, it’s much easier. Knowing about the different tenses in English gives you a good sense of the scope of English grammar, but of course there are many other elements of our grammar, which I’ll be dropping in on from time to time.


4 thoughts on “Perfect!

  1. And my students (high school) used to be confused by simple past, present future; then past perfect, etc. In my experience, studying another language is very helpful in understanding the intricacies of one’s own language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is. I think if I hadn’t learned Irish and French at school I would never have figures out how to teach English grammar. Even then it took me a while to get my head fully round the present perfect!

      Liked by 1 person

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