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Many verb tenses such as "past perfect", "present perfect", and "future perfect" exist.

I understand what these tenses mean and when they should be used, but what does the word perfect imply? Are other tenses somehow not perfect?

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    Perfect is an English rendering of the Lating grammatical term perfectum, which is the past participle of the verb perficere 'do completely; finish', which comes from the verb facere 'make, do'. So something is "perfect" in the linguistic sense if it is done with, over, finished, all through, and not continuing. This was a separate tense (different endings) in Latin and still is in the Romance languages, where it's called the past or the preterite and contrasts with the "imperfect", which is like English past continuous in meaning, but still different endings in form. – John Lawler Sep 7 '13 at 21:53
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Perfect in this case has nothing to do with perfection. The name is an historical accident.

The Latin perfectum means complete or finished, and one of the Latin past tenses was named perfectum because it designated finished actions. Later, in the Baroque era, the earliest English grammarians were struggling to describe the language. They had no tool to hand but classical grammar*, so they borrowed the name perfect for our language's second past tense.


* Which they interpreted mostly at second hand, by way of French grammarians—and as John Lawler points out, Romance languages like French mostly retained some form of the Latin perfectum.

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  • They borrowed it for constructions with have plus Past Participle, which are not always past -- the use of this construction is more like the Greek perfect system than the Latin. (There's only one past tense in English, btw. :-) – John Lawler Sep 7 '13 at 22:02
  • @JohnLawler But they thought of it as a second past tense. Pickbourn 1789 seems to be the first to have recognized the present perfect as a 'present' tense. (Pickbourn distinguishes five present and five past tenses.) – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 7 '13 at 22:11
  • Yes, as you pointed out, they wanted Latin models. As to what they thought of as tense, it's probably no sillier than modern Anglophone school "grammar". – John Lawler Sep 7 '13 at 23:42
  • @JohnLawler Let's be fair: the contemporary sense of tense is a mid-20th-century innovation. Jespersen in the 20s used tense in the same sense as Pickbourn, down to his distinction of 'simple' and 'compound' tenses. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 8 '13 at 0:45
  • Jespersen wanted to get his books published and into the school system. If you allow the perfect as a tense, you have to allow the progressive as a tense, too, because they're just the same: Aux + Participle, lined up in order. You could stop there and have English with only the present, the past, the present perfect, the past perfect, the present continuous, the past continuous, the present perfect continuous, and the past perfect continuous. Eight tenses. Except then somebody asks about the future tense. And the subjunctive tense. And the emphatic tense. And the conditional tense. And .. – John Lawler Sep 8 '13 at 2:28

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