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My question could seem to be very simple, but the reasons why I ask it connect with the understanding of fundamental principles of the construction of the English language. That’s why my question is aimed at native English speakers. I would like to know their point of view, not from the position of grammar but how they understand this aspect of the language. So, my question is connected with the perfect verb form. In grammar books it is said that this verb form is made with “have” + “past participle” (for example: I have broken my phone). They also add that the verb “have” in this case loses its own semantic meaning and is used for showing time and voice, and that the participle gives the semantic meaning of the action.

But I wonder if “have” to native speakers not only shows time and voice but plays the role of a verb that expresses state, like in old English where to make the perfect verb form “be” is used instead of “have” - for example “autumn is come” (in this example verb expresses state and action at the same time). So, my question is - for native speakers is the perfect form understood initially as a finished action (using the perfect form, the speaker means result of action (or its connection with the present and so on, but in general it is the action)) or is the perfect form understood initially as indicating state? (in this example – “autumn is come” we see that this perfect form of old English expresses state, not action)? How is it for native speakers in modern English?

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You're right about I-E perfect; German still uses both 'be' and 'have', as does French. But in English it's only have; the old be perfects are now interpreted as predicate adjectives instead of past participles: He is tired, She is scared. Here are some details on the uses of the perfect construction. –  John Lawler Nov 8 '13 at 1:33

1 Answer 1

Native speakers, qua speakers, don’t think about it. But after forty-some-odd years of puzzling over just what the perfect construction ‘means’, grammarians appear to be moving toward a consensus which includes defining the construction as a stative.

There are many tests for stativity, and it is true that perfect constructions tend to fail those which test primarily for agency; for instance, it is perfectly acceptable to say John has deliberately kissed Sarah, but not *John has deliberately known French. It is argued, however, that it is only the VERBPaPpl Phrase that complements the HAVE constituent which is taken agentively and is modified by deliberately, not the entire construction. In other tests, perfect constructions act like statives:

  • Events may be employed with the progressive construction; states ordinarily may not.

       John is buying me a beer.
    John is liking beer.
    John is having bought me a beer.

  • When employed in a main clause modified by a perfective when clause, events are understood to follow what is described in the when clause; states are understood to start before and continue during what is described in the when clause.

    When I met John he liked beer. ...John liked beer before and during our meeting.
    When I met John he bought me a beer. ... John bought me a beer after our meeting.
    When I met John he had bought a beer. ... John had bought the beer before our meeting and ‘continued’ to have bought that beer during the meeting.

  • Events can serve as the complement in Wh- cleft constructions; statives cannot.

       What John did was buy me a beer.
    What John did was like beer.
    What John did was have bought me a beer.

    In this case I find it compelling that the cleft becomes grammatical if the have piece is moved out of the complement into the front part:

      What John had done was buy me a beer.

    This seems to me to vindicate the proposed distinction between HAVE and VERBPaPpl Phrase constituents in parsing the agency test above.

Nishiyama and Koenig propose a monosemous understanding of the perfect: “that the meaning of the perfect introduces a base eventuality and a perfect state whose category is underspecified semantically (is represented as a free property variable) and that neo-Gricean reasoning and Levinson’s I-principle lead hearers to appropriately fill in the value of that variable.”


Atsuko Nishiyama and Jean-Pierre Koenig, “What is a perfect state?”, Language 86, 3, 2010.

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