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BACKGROUND

There are grammar terms such as 'present perfect' and 'past perfect' as in:

She has learned English for 10 years. [present perfect]

She had learned English when she was little. [past perfect]

I believe that these terms are fairly well established in more recent grammars as well as in the traditional grammar.

The way these terms are made is such that the first word 'present/past' represents the tense of the auxiliary 'have', and that the second word 'perfect' the structure of 'have + past participle'.

Now, I notice that the term 'perfect infinitive' is used in the traditional grammar to refer to the form 'have + past participle' where 'have' is in the form of infinitive.

For example:

She seems to have learned English when she was little. [perfect infinitive]

Similarly, the terms 'perfect participle' and 'perfect gerund' are used to refer to the form 'having + past participle' where 'having' is in the form of participle and gerund, respectively, as in:

Having learned English, she now wants to learn Chinese. [perfect participle]

They are not aware of her having learned English when she was little. [perfect gerund]

ISSUE

I don't know whether--or how well--these terms 'perfect infinitive', 'perfect participle' and 'perfect gerund' are established among more recent grammars, but they just don't make sense especially when you consider the other terms 'present perfect' and 'past perfect', where the first word represents the tense of 'have' and the second word the entire form 'have + past participle', because it's the other way around in the terms 'perfect infinitive', 'perfect participle' and 'perfect gerund', isn't it?

QUESTION

So I'd like to know first if anyone agrees with my confusion as to these terms being inconsistent, and secondly if better terms are actually in use for these latter three.

  • To work; to be working; to have worked; to have been working are structured He works; he is working; he has worked; he has been working. Since both have features similar to indefinite, continuous/progressive/ perfect and perfect continuous, these names may have been seen convenient by users. As for the use, one can easily say, I like to work for the army; I like to be working....I like to have worked.... I like to have been working....These are in used; for long; and I don't think there is a need to find new names for them. – Ram Pillai Sep 5 at 6:15
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That's interesting. I hadn't been aware of "perfect infinitive" or "perfect gerund" monikers. But thanks to your clear examples, I can see that there is no way these could be named in parallel with the former three, because the "tense" of have does not change. It seems as if "have" or "having" have no tense at all (or rather, that they can adapt to any tense)

Having learned English, she [speaks/spoke/has been speaking/could then speak] it well.

She [seems/seemed/had seemed] to have learned English when she was little.

So we could not apply tense terms to the latter three.

Clearly "participle" and "gerund" are apt. "Infinitive" seems to make sense, if only because the verb form includes "to".

So what are we left with? Just whether they are all "perfect", right? Well, do they denote that something has completed? Yes, they do.

So, despite the confusion of having so many similar names, I don't see how we could improve on these last three. They are logically named, although not "consistent" (parallel/symmetrical) in the way you seem to want them to be.

We could make the names longer, but what would we add? Shorter? That would be even more confusing! I'm afraid your stuck with these.

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  • If only to make them consistent with "present perfect" or "past perfect", wouldn't it be better to call them "infinitive perfect", "gerund perfect" and "participle perfect"? – JK2 Jan 22 '15 at 22:04
  • Sounds good to me. Take it up with the powers that be. If you can find them, and convince them. Linguists might require a lot of convincing. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 23 '15 at 5:45
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Many different terminologies have been in use over the years and there is still a lot of variation.

(Present) Perfect

"I have done" can be called the perfect, the present perfect, or the present perfective depending which grammar you look in (though I believe the term "present perfect" has come to dominate, and this area of agreement is to be welcomed).

Quirk et al. regard the perfect/non-perfect distinction as one of aspect, not tense, and use the term "perfective".

Huddleston & Pullum regard the distinction as one of secondary tense and use the term "perfect", so to that extent they support the traditional notion of a compound tense (analytic tense) rather than simply recognising simple tenses (synthetic tenses). Many older grammars regard the various perfect and progressive constructions as "compound tenses"; many newer grammars say that English has only two tenses, present and past, and that "I have done" combines the present tense with the perfect(ive) aspect.

For H&P, the present perfect combines the use of the present tense in the primary tense system with the use of the perfect tense in the secondary tense system. (By contrast, Quirk et al. and H&P are in agreement that "I am doing" represents the progressive aspect, whereas, again, older or more traditional grammars might describe it as a "compound tense" called the "present progressive tense" or something similar.)

The terminological confusion also encompasses Latin. Originally what we now call the perfect or present perfect was called the past perfect (and indeed, British learners of French are still often told that the perfect tense is a "past" tense", and the French themselves call it the passé composé, compound past). In 1889, an article in the journal Academy[1] noted: "The form ‘scripsi’, the traditional ‘past-perfect’, was now called ‘present perfect’; ‘scripseram’ was called past-perfect".

Although Quirk et al. use "perfective" to mean "perfect", H&P use "perfective" with a very different meaning (the simple past is "perfective", according to H&P, where it describes a completeted event in the past). So what appears at first to be a minor difference in terms has extra significance.

Past Perfect

Similarly, the past perfect is also known (but today less commonly, although in study of foreign languages the older term is still often used for the equivalent forms) as the pluperfect.

Perfect Infinitive

Because Latin has a distinct morphological form called the perfect infinitive, it was natural that the equivalent periphrastic or compound form in English - "to have done" - became known as the perfect infinitive as well.

I don't find this inconsistent with the terms "present perfect" and "past perfect", because in all three terms, the term "perfect" represents the fact that the perfective aspect (Quirk) or the perfect secondary tense (H&P) is being employed, i.e. the fact the auxiliary "have" is being used followed by (what is often misleadingly called) a past participle.

It has been suggested in the comments that "infinitive perfect" would better parallel "present perfect". But "infinitive" is (according to some, but not all!) the name of a mood (though others consider the whole concept of mood largely irrelevant to modern English anyway: for example, H&P consider the term "indicative" essentially an irrelevant archaism and only mention it twice, once in a footnote; they do use the term "mood" but primarily to denote the analytic system of mood represented by modal auxiliaries). If the infinitive is a mood or similar to a mood then the term "infinitive" in "perfect infinitive" isn't comparable to the term "present" in "present perfect" and doesn't need to come in the same place in the phrase. We probably speak more often of the "present indicative" than of the "indicative present", though both terms are in use.

Quirk et al. use the term "infinitive perfective" to describe what is often called the "perfect infinitive". So they do in fact put the term "perfective" at the end of the expression here too. (Note: just as the term "infinitive" does not refer solely to "to"-infinitives, Quirk et al.'s term "infinitive perfective" does not refer solely to "to have done" but also to the words "have done" in a phrase such as "may have done".)

As far as I know, H&P do not give a specific name to the form "to have done". They regard it as a nonfinite clause involving a "to-infinitival" combined with a verb to which the perfect secondary tense has been applied.

Past and Present Participles

Traditionally "done" (without "having") is called the past participle. This is hugely illogical, because it is used as part of the present perfect ("I have done") and future perfect, not just the past perfect. So the term "perfect participle" would make more sense (and I believe it has occasionally been used, with the present participle renamed "progressive participle"), only it would be confusing because of the more common meaning of "perfect participle" (as below). It would also not represent the fact that the identical participle is used in passives ("it was done"). Others have suggested the term "passive participle" (with the present participle renamed "active participle"), but this wouldn't represent the fact that it is used in perfects, and the parallel term "active participle" has the problem that is also used as part of passive expressions ("it is being done").

Overall, the term "past participle" has survived, but Quirk et al. replace it with ther term "-ed participle". (Of course, it doesn't always end in "-ed"; sometimes it ends in "-en", for example.) They similarly replace the term "present participle" with "-ing participle", which is understandable because the term "present participle" is a particularly illogical way to describe a form that occurs in expressions such as "I will be doing", "I was doing", etc.

H&P use the traditional term "past participle"- although they are not happy with the term "present participle" either, emphasising that "it is not a tensed form of the verb". So they replace the term "present participle" with "gerund-participle".

At this point it is important to note that neither Quirk et al. nor H&P (the two major comprehensive English grammars) regard the distinction between "present participle" and "gerund" as a useful or valid one. So H&P use the term "gerund-participle" because "there is no justification for making any inflectional distinction... we call this form gerund-participle to reflect the fact that it covers the ground of both gerunds and present participles in other languages". Quirk et al. say "We do not find it useful to distinguish a gerund from a participle, but terminologically class all the -ing forms [that are traditionally held to be gerunds] as participles... [The] lack of correspondence between the English gerund and the traditional use of the term can be held as a further reason for rejecting the term gerund in English."

Perfect Participle and Perfect Gerund

I'm not sure how widely used these terms are outside the field of EFL/ESL, or whether they are traditional. In any case, based on their lack of support for the distinction between gerunds and participles, it follows that neither Quirk et al. nor H&P would use the term "perfect gerund" or regard it as a distinct form from the perfect participle.

H&P regard "having done" as a "gerund-participial" used with the perfect tense. (A gerund-participial is a gerund-participle used as part of a gerund-participial clause. So "having" on its own can also be a participial.) They don't seem to regard it as requiring a specific name.

Similarly, Quirk et al. regard "having done" as a participle clause (they don't use the term "participial") used with the perfective aspect.

Sources:

  • Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman.
  • Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K. (2002) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press.

[1] Cited in the OED Online under 'past perfect', a sub-entry of 'past'; https://oed.com/view/Entry/138567?redirectedFrom=past+participle#eid31698049

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  • Nice to see more than one authority being credited. But please shout less loudly (it may be a restriction caused by available fonts). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 5 at 13:53
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Is there a better term for “perfect infinitive”, “perfect participle” or “perfect gerund”?

No.

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