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I've always struggled with the present perfect tense, as probably many non-native speakers do. The way I learnt the perfect tense in school always involved these so-called signal words that one had to remember, or these time-line diagrams that were meant to show that some event in the past was still relevant at present etc. But there were always cases that just didn't fit into these pattern and this was driving me crazy.

Recently I came up with a trick how to understand the present tense. I have the feeling that it works very well for me, and makes it obvious whether or not to use the present perfect tense in an ad-hoc way without having to remember any signal words, rules or patterns.

I think it's important to understand what a native speaker "feels" linguistically when he uses this or that construction, my idea seems to be based on this fact, and I wanted to ask native speakers among you if you feel it the way I think, or if it's completely wrong. If the latter is true, do you think my method is appropriate to make sense of the present perfect tense?

My idea is to take the auxiliary word "have" more literally. When I use a similar construction in German, I don't give the word "haben" (=have) any meaning in the sense of possessing something, it's just a construction. I used to do it for the English "have" as well, and I think this is why I got confused.

Take for example "I have done my homework". The way I look at it now is that I focus on the part "I have" - I have something, I possess something, and this is happening now. What do I have? I have my homework with the attribute "done". It's like having a mental checklist with the word "homework" on it, and with the status "done", and I have it, because it's on my checklist. The difference is in breaking up the sentence, namely not "I have done" + "my homework" but rather "I have" + "my homework done".

Now using this rule I would not make the mistake and say something like "I have done my homework yesterday" (In German, for example, it would be perfectly OK to say the corresponding "Ich habe meine Hausaufgaben gestern gemacht."!) I would not say it because if I focus on the "I have" part it becomes "I have yesterday", but this does not make sense, you always have something now, and not at some point in the past, unless you say "I had done my homework yesterday", which again makes sense, and you can proceed with applying the same logic but not to the present but to some given point in the past, and gives you the past perfect tense.

It seems that this rule is analogous to the signal words like "yesterday" that we had to remember, those are just words that indicate some point in the past and lead to a contradiction when used in a similar way as above: "I have (point in the past)". So, really, instead of remembering the signal words it looks like it's easier to just get rid of the participle part of the present perfect and see if the sentence still makes sense.

Also, now it's more transparent in what way present perfect is a tense that bridges the past and the present, which those typical time-line diagrams try to illustrate. The construction consists of two parts, the auxiliary "have" + past participle. The past participle together with the corresponding object (e.g. "done homework") is a property of this object which was obtained in the past. The auxiliary "have" tells you that that object still has this property now in the present.

To sum up:

  • Thinking of the auxiliary "have" in the present perfect tense as just a formal part of the construction without any meaning on its own was a mistake
  • Think of the "have" as really having something.
  • This something is the corresponding object with the past participle indicating its present status.

It would be really helpful to hear opinions from both native and non-native speakers about weather or not this is helpful, useful, or correct at all.

  • You need not include the 'present' tense -- it is the 'perfect' aspect that is of interest. You could make a similar argument about the 'inchoative' aspect ("he got going") utilizing a verb that means 'to obtain'. – AmI Feb 24 '17 at 23:08
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As far as it goes, your model is correct. What it depicts, in fact, is what many authorities regard as the historical origin of the perfect construction in utterances of the sort chasly from UK instances:

I have my homework finished = I have my homework in a finished state

  • The standard argument is that this sort of utterance became grammaticalized in very much the same way that the periphrastic modal have to/hafta was grammaticalized from utterances of this sort:

    I still have my homework to do → I still have to do my homework

Do note that, as chasly from UK cogently points out, utterances of this sort are not restricted to the narrow sense "possession"; other senses of lexical HAVE may be involved. For instance

Now that we have that problem disposed of ... to have a problem means that we are presented with the problem, not that we possess the problem

And your device of treating the two components of the construction—the HAVE form and the participle—as bearers of distinct sorts of information is to my mind a happy one for pedagogic purposes. (In fact, I have adopted it myself in my discussion of the Grammatical meaning of the construction over on ell.SE.) It is not strictly true—the 'meaning' of the construction derives from the collocation, not from the atomic meanings of its parts—but it does point up the peculiar character of the English perfect: it designates a state current at reference time which arises out of a prior eventuality. And it makes it very easy to explain the "present perfect puzzle": why the PrPf is not used with temporal expressions which do not include the present.

Where your model falls down is in failing to account for a number of uses to which the perfect construction has been extended since its origin in the dark backward and abysm of Old English. What you describe is the resultative or stative perfect; but there are also existential or experiential perfects ("I have often visited Paris") and continuative or universal perfects ("I have been living here since 1976"). I don't think your model will accommodate these.

(The paper by James McCawley which introduced these distinctions in 1971 also offered a Hot News perfect—"I've just won the Nobel prize!"—but this is now regarded as a special instance of existential or resultative perfects, and McCawley himself withdrew the category in 1981.)

Grammarians have been arguing about just what the perfect "means" for forty-some-odd years now. In my opinion, the most useful recent treatment is that laid out by Atsuko Nishiyama and Jean-Pierre Koenig in a series of papers culminating in “What is a perfect state?”, Language 86, 3, 2010. Nishiyama and Koenig turn their attention to the pragmatics of the perfect and conclude that

the perfect is pragmatically, rather than semantically, ambiguous. The meaning of the perfect introduces a base eventuality and a perfect state whose category is underspecified semantically. Neo-Gricean reasoning leads the hearers to appropriately fill in the value of that variable.

An earlier version of their paper is available online here, but it's formidably technical; I try to make its conclusions intelligible at §3.2 Pragmatic meaning of my post on perfects at ell.SE.


Named by Wolfgang Klein in 'The present perfect puzzle', Language 68 (1992), 525–552. See also Anita Mittwoch, “The purported Present Perfect Puzzle”, in D. Gorland et al. (eds), Meaning and Grammar of Nouns and Verbs, 2014.

  • I don't think we have to appeal to existential or experiential perfects to refute the validity of the model -- not if we think of 'to have' as referring to possession of an object. For example: "I have shot the arrow into the sea." Does this mean that you now have an arrow in 'shot' condition? No, you don't have the arrow at all -- it is no longer accessible to you. – chasly from UK Oct 10 '15 at 15:28
  • @chaslyfromUK But lexical have need not designate possession: "Now we have that disposed of we can move on." – StoneyB Oct 10 '15 at 15:31
  • I quote from the OP, "The way I look at it now is that I focus on the part "I have" - I have something, I possess something, and this is happening now." [my added emphasis] The OP's model posits possession and that is merely one of the ways it fails. – chasly from UK Oct 10 '15 at 15:34
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    @chaslyfromUK Fair enough, and I'll add something to that effect. But I think the HAVE x participled construction can be employed with lexical HAVE in (most?all?many?) of its many senses, and to that extent I think OP's approach does provide an avenue into understanding the perfect. As I say expressly, I endorse it only as a pedagogic approach. – StoneyB Oct 10 '15 at 15:44
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    @chaslyfromUK We will have to disagree. I've been following QQ about the perfect on ELL for two years, and I see OP arriving at insight into a fundamental point which seems to escape everybody taught by other approaches: that the present perfect is a statement about a present state. That deserves applause in the first instance -- then we can set about refining the insight. – StoneyB Oct 10 '15 at 16:19
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Your attempt doesn't work. You say

The past participle together with the corresponding object (e.g. "done homework") is a property of this object which was obtained in the past.

That would not explain intransitive verbs. For example:

John: There are seats available. Why are you standing rather than sitting?

Jane: Because I have always stood.

What is the object of 'stood' in that case?

Answer

Unfortunately your theory is incorrect.

Discussion

In English the following have different meanings.

A.

"John, have you done your homework?"

"Yes, I have done my homework." [I finished my homework.]


B.

"John, do you have your homework done?"

"Yes, I have my homework done." [I have my homework in a state of completion]


The latter version approximates to your idea. However the latter version is not an example of present perfect.

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    Note, too, that young John could as easily be playing word games. Yes, I have done my homework doesn't necessarily mean that he has done the homework he was to have done today, he could simply mean that homework is something that he has done in the past. A wise parent will follow up on that response. Language is hard. – bye Oct 10 '15 at 15:21
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I sympathize with your struggles. As a teacher, I face this question almost daily when helping my students understand and use present perfect in a more natural way. This comes up frequently when helping them write emails to their colleagues all over the world. What I have found, is the following:

1) Usage of present perfect and it's accompanying logic seems to be cultural as well as regional. Because of this, there is no "logic" with it's use. "My mom always said that so I guess that's why I say it." or "That's what we say in [fill in the country of your choice.]"

2) Native speakers themselves often don't know why they use / used a present perfect construction, and when they do explain why, that explanation is situational rather than comprehensive.

3) Language teaching books always simplify things or pick artificial situations to "explain" present perfect, and these sentences are usually isolated in context and can be explained in other ways besides the explanation given. Some books are better than others.

4) Because simple past and present perfect are so closely related, native speakers will always be able to substitute one for the other and give a completely reasonable argument in favor of their substitution. Also, non-native speakers will be able to give reasons justifying their use which will often stump the teacher or seem completely reasonable.

and finally,

5) Use of the present perfect is highly personal. One person will respond upon being asked "Where's the milk I put in the office fridge?" with "I've finished it." whereas another will say "I finished it." Or, "Did you do your homework?" with "I've done my homework." or "I did my homework." And applying observation 4, equally valid and "airtight" explanations can be given as to why one should be used over the other.

To put 5 in perspective, I recently assigned my students the task of writing a bill collection email from a package shipping company. Most of the letters started this way: Dear Customer, Our company has recently delivered your orders but we did not receive payment. I have also called you twice to ask about payment but I have not received a reply. I am writing to ask for payment because I have not received it." I asked the class why they used present perfect and they said because they did these things in the past but they all affect the present. I gave my reasons why the simple past was a better choice. Some agreed, others gave reasons why present perfect was better. A fellow teacher commented that he saw nothing wrong. He's from Australia and in conversation, I notice he uses present perfect for things I'm pretty sure I would use simple past.

So, in a nutshell, what I'm saying is to not feel frustrated with present perfect. Continue to think about it. Find your own answers that help you to be more "accurate." I know some are going to complain about this point of view but I would suggest that you find your own style that fits in with the generally accepted PP rules. To liken this to quantum mechanics; sometimes it's a wave and sometimes it's a particle, but it's always both at the same time.

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I think your method as a guideline for using the present perfect works for transitive verbs. In B above, the answer could as easily have been, "Yes, I have done my homework," which would be a present perfect sentence that would stand your test. For intransitive verbs a signal of time is usually necessary. "I have lived in New York for two years." But the idea of something in the past carried into the present remains.

  • I don't think I follow. What about, "I have destroyed my childhood toys." What is the 'something' that has been carried into the present -- my old toys? If that were the case then I was lying when I said I destroyed them. – chasly from UK Oct 10 '15 at 15:47
  • I have attained a state of the destruction of my toys. What's wrong with that? It seems too simple just to use the negative, Surely we can "have" a negative state of things? – Margana Oct 10 '15 at 19:31
  • Yes, the toys that were destroyed in the past remain destroyed in the present. – Zan700 Oct 10 '15 at 23:51
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I think the original idea, that the speaker possesses something now, works for something like "I have lived in New York." or "I have lived in New York for two years." or "I have destroyed my childhood toys."

Think about the above two sentences in the context of a bigger conversation - the implied meaning that the speaker wants to convey to the listener.

e.g.- John- I have lived in New York. Carl - Really? And..? John - Well, I think it's an amazing place.

The implication is that you possess some info now and you want to convey it. The listener, when he hears the present perfect, automatically expects to hear current opinion / ideas etc. or to see visible evidence.

In contrast - John - I lived in NY during the credit crisis. (Note the specific time frame) Carl - Oh really? How was it? Did you see much of the chaos? John - Many of my friends lost their jobs.

The use of the past automatically puts the entire conversation into the context of a story that may or may not have any bearing on the present. But the present is not important here.

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Better late than never. My shot is as follows: I view the PPT as an adjectival complex\unit. The grave mistake of the OP is splitting the whole into parts, viz. a possessive verb and the object of such possession. That's an invalid approach IMO. One should treat the PPT as a whole, as an attribute of the subject of a clause. You've got a quality, a trait, an attribute not just anything done. It's not about doing, about an action itself - it's about an adjective of yours, so to speak. This approach at once puts the PPT in the indispensable position relating to the subject's present since you never meet a thing and its attribute being separate from each other. You've got a trait "to have something done", not only that "something" done. That's an important distinction as anyone with the basic philosophical training will tell you. It's a predicate of the subject and it may be anything - a thing, an action, even the absence: "I haven't done anything wrong!" This helps me in difficult cases: "Teachers have always looked favorably on well-written sentences, and grammar has become increasingly important on standardized tests." (English Grammar Workbook For Dummies by Geraldine Woods) But... I'm not a native speaker so take this insight with a grain of salt.

  • There is a definite difference between "Teachers have always looked favorably on well-written sentences" and "Teachers always looked favorably on well-written sentences": the former implies it is still the case, but the latter implies that it is no longer happening. – Andy Feb 25 '17 at 21:56
  • @Andy And what's your point? I do agree with you completely, but that's not so obvious for a non-native speaker who has been told that habitual actions are usually signified by the Simple Tense. What about "Teachers always look favorably on well-written sentences"? Is it ungrammatical or does it make sense? – Michael Login Feb 26 '17 at 21:32
  • It was just a random observation that popped into my head while I was reading your example sentence. The OP is trying to understand PPT and you can't fully understand it unless you understand cases where it has a slightly different meaning than the simple past. Yes, your simple example also makes sense. – Andy Feb 26 '17 at 23:01

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