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

This is a mystery for me.

Why do we say perfect in tenses, for example present perfect continuous. present and continuous is very obvious but what is perfect?

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marked as duplicate by Carlo_R., coleopterist, tchrist, RegDwigнt Oct 8 '12 at 21:21

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@FrantišekStanko Your link got messed up (forgot to close the last parenthesis I think). Here is the fixed link. –  Zairja Oct 8 '12 at 20:12

2 Answers 2

First of all, (though not for the first time),

  • "Present Perfect" is not a tense,
  • "Perfect" is not a tense,
  • "Present Continuous" is not a tense, and
  • "Present Perfect Continuous" is not a tense.

Present is a tense, and Past is a tense. Those are the only tenses in English. Tenses change the verb itself, instead of adding yet more auxiliary verbs.

Everything else is a Construction.

  • the Perfect Construction uses a form of have plus the Perfect Participle of the next verb.

    • I have eaten.
  • the Continuous (or Progressive) Construction uses a form of be plus the Present Participle of the next verb.

    • I am eating.
  • These can be put together, if done in the proper order (Perfect before Progressive)

    • I have been eating.
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I have here in my hand the 1973 edition of the OED (well, as much of it as I can hold in one hand). For tense, it gives "Any one of the different forms or modifications (or word-groups) in the conjugation of a verb which indicate the different times (past, present or future) at which the action or state denoted by it is viewed as happening or existing, and also (by extension) the different nature of such action or state, as continuing (imperfect) or completed (perfect) ...". Of course, you are welcome to use the word differently if you so choose. –  user16269 Oct 8 '12 at 21:26
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A quick clarification. It seems you’re claiming that English has only two tenses on morphological grounds (because only present and past are affixal). I’m used to this claim being made on semantic grounds (Enç’s work being the first I read on the topic). If there were a dialect of English in which “past tense” were constructed with an auxiliary, would you no longer regard past as a tense in that dialect? –  Daniel Harbour Oct 8 '12 at 21:27
    
Second clarification, if you don’t mind. I tend to associate “construction” (the “Perfect Construction”) with Construction Grammar, rather than traditional grammatical description. Doubtless, “construction” has had some ad hoc uses in this context before. The claim that “Everything else is a Construction” seems to imply that this is an established usage. Was that what you meant? Thanks. –  Daniel Harbour Oct 8 '12 at 21:31
    
(On further thought, “periphrastic construction” is familiar to me from traditional grammar. But more thoroughgoing use of “construction” is, as said, novel, for me.) –  Daniel Harbour Oct 8 '12 at 21:43
    
I'm just using the term as it is used by professional linguists -- i.e, tense is strictly a morphological term. Why? For starts, there are way too many periphrastic verb constructions in English to label all of them as tenses. Second, Progressive (among many other constructions) would be an aspect and not a tense, even if it were morphological. –  John Lawler Oct 9 '12 at 8:14

In Portuguese, past continuous and past simple are called respectively "past imperfect" and "past perfect".

I ate. (nothing stopped me before I finished)

I was eating. (when something happened and made me stop)

"I have eaten" sounds like "I ate", but the focus in on the moment (consequence of eating), not in the past.

Present perfect is used to describe what's finished at the time of speaking. Perfectly finished.

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