I recently came across the following construction in some documentation I was reading:

This document describes a solution that has been applied during the migration.

To me, this seemed utterly wrong, but I was not exactly sure why.

After reading through Michaelis's "Time and Tense", which introduced me to Reichenbach's model of tense, it seems to me that the reason comes down to the location of the reference time.

Based on the context of the situation, I understand the reference time, R, to be a completed duration occurring before the moment of utterance, S, with the event, E, not being ordered with respect to R (E,R_S).

To me using the present perfect (E_S,R), with the event and reference point being different simply does not work.

The reference point is in the past along with the event, so simple past, right?

Though I generally trust my gut in matters of tense and time, I am having doubts on this one.

What are your opinions on the matter?



1 Answer 1


I formulate the matter as follows.

The time phrase in a present perfect construction must not exclude the present.

The phrase during the migration is non-committal with respect to whether the migration is ongoing or has been completed. The inclusion or exclusion of the present occurs on the semantic level.

If you understand during the migration to refer to an action that has already taken place, a thing of the past, as you apparently do

The reference point is in the past along with the event, so simple past, right?

then the sentence may strike your ear as "off". If we're talking about last year's migration, tracking wildebeests or whatever, then you'd say:

The following document describes a solution that was applied during the i.e. last year's migration.

If you understand the migration to be ongoing even as it is being spoken about, this year's wildebeest migration which isn't over yet, then that sentence should sound fine to you.

The following document describes a solution that has been applied during thei.e. this year's still ongoing migration.

We might look to the tense to disambiguate when the time phrase is noncommittal with respect to the reference time: the speaker is apparently talking about an ongoing migration because he has said "has been applied".

But when the time phrase clearly refers to the past, excluding the present, then the present perfect is ungrammatical:

This is an I approach I have used last semester. off

That is a movie I have seen when I was a kid. off

  • thank you for your reply! It still doesn't sound fine. Even if during the migration is non-committal in terms of whether or not the migration is completed, the application of the solution is not ongoing. I think using the perfect tense here might be confusing for readers. Do you think that the writer should have used instead, "is currently being applied"?
    – Evan
    Feb 22, 2019 at 9:31
  • Context. If I'm telling you about this year's still ongoing wildebeest migration and you're aware that it is still ongoing, then you should not be confused by I can show you the logs I have kept during the migration. It might be clearer to say have been keeping but it's still present perfect.
    – TRomano
    Feb 22, 2019 at 9:34
  • These are the foods I have eaten this week. You're not eating at the moment. this week is the reference time, not the time of your eating. The speaker is placing the eating within a time-frame that includes the present. These are the foods I ate last week. The time-frame excludes the present.
    – TRomano
    Feb 22, 2019 at 9:36
  • I still think that without the addition of "ongoing" it does not sound good. I also think that the casual reader who does not have appropriate context might find it confusing or incorrect.
    – Evan
    Feb 22, 2019 at 9:42
  • I think that's a failure of imagination on your part, by which I mean that this year's migration is not sufficiently present to you because the phrase during the migration is too abstract and you're not FEELING or intuiting a present context. Look at how much popcorn I've eaten during the movie! Tell me to shut up, you're trying to watch the movie.
    – TRomano
    Feb 22, 2019 at 9:49

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