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Why is 'present perfect' present if it happened in the past? And why is it 'perfect'?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Present Perfect is called like that because it combines the present grammatical tense (you have) and the perfect grammatical aspect (done). Compare that to Past Perfect which uses the past tense (you had + done), or the Future Perfect which uses the future "tense" (you will have + done). The term perfect comes from Latin perfectus, "achieved, finished, completed".

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The present perfect, like the simple past, locates the situation, or part of it, in the past:

  • She has read your letter.
  • She read your letter.

However, the present perfect is a compound tense that combines the present and the past, while the simple past is purely a past tense.

Here are some reasons its called the present perfect, and not just the past tense:

Use of time adjuncts

The present perfect allows the use of time adjuncts referring to the present.

  • We have, by now, finished most of our work.
  • *We, by now, finished most of our work. (incorrect)

Conversely, the present perfect does not allow the use of time adjuncts referring to the past.

  • *We have finished our work last week. (incorrect)
  • We finished our work last week.

Current relevance

With the present perfect, the situation in the past is seen to have some kind of current relevance. Compare these two:

  • She has lived in this city for ten years.

  • She lived in this city for ten years.

Use of the present perfect in the first sentence indicates that she still lives in this city while use of the simple past in the second indicates that she lived in this city in the past, but no longer does.

I've quoted quite a bit from the very descriptive A Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum.

As noted in @RegDwight's answer, I understand that the perfect part comes from the Latin perfectus, meaning "completed".

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TO expand "Current Relevance", the "She has lived in this city for ten years" indicates that she is currently still living in the city, while "She lived in this city for ten years" indicates that she no longer lives in the city, and "She had lived in this city for ten years" indicates nothing about the present but does indicate that she had lived in the city before a particular incident in question. –  Wayne May 17 '11 at 13:25
    
Thanks @Wayne, I've expanded my answer based on your feedback. –  Tragicomic Feb 7 at 16:28
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protected by RegDwigнt May 5 '12 at 18:50

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