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I have heard that the origin of the present perfect construction is that sentences like "I have it done" (passive) changed to "I have done it" (present perfect).

Is that true at all?

If that's the case, would anyone mind giving me an explanation in detail on how the change took place?

Moreover, if the passive construction used to be the only usage of past participles, why are they called "past participle" in the first place?

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    Rachel Costa wrote a PhD dissertation at the University of Michigan on this topic. Jan 4, 2013 at 2:20
  • If we can't find a suitable short answer or reference to this, are we failing in the objectives here? Even I'm interested in the answer as much.
    – Kris
    Jan 4, 2013 at 6:59
  • @JohnLawler Thanks but I cannot access the resources at that site, I guess.
    – Kris
    Jan 4, 2013 at 7:00
  • For what it's worth, this is basically true for the development of the perfect tense in Romance languages, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's also true for the Germanic languages. By contrast, Slavic languages still have fully distinct perfect and passive participles, and in those Slavic languages that still use an auxiliary verb for the perfect (e.g., Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian), that verb is always "to be." Jan 4, 2013 at 9:05
  • "I have it done" is still the correct order in Present Perfect in contemporary German. "I have done it" would be jarringly ungrammatical (and interestingly, even non-native speakers who tend to make lots of word-order mistakes barely ever make that particular one).
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 4, 2013 at 9:51

3 Answers 3

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This is far from being a complete answer to an interesting question, but in ‘An Invitation of Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’, Bruce Mitchell provides some evidence that the past participle was seen as an adjective in the ancestor of modern perfect constructions. There were three forms in Old English that correspond, for example, to our past perfect construction. One is: Hie hæfdon ϸone cyning ofslægenne, ‘They had the king, slain.’ Ofslægenne is inflected as an adjective here, showing the -ne ending of the accusative masculine singular. It agrees with ϸone cyning, the object of hæfdon. Similarly, the ancestor of today’s passive is seen in patterns like He wæs / wearϸ ofslægen ‘He was / became slain’ Hie wæron / wurdon ofslægene ‘They were / became slain’. In the second, the participle is again inflected as an adjective.

As for the term itself, I suspect we use ‘past participle’ simply because most of our traditional grammar terms are based on descriptions of Latin grammar. Latin had present active and future active participles and perfect passive and future passive participles. The perfect passive participle has come to be understood as a past participle when applied to English.

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1°) It is to be noted that the English perfect and the French perfect have developed pretty much in the same way and at the same time for reasons that are known : the influence of French grammar and syntax on old English, like 'of-genitives' (instead of saxon -es/'s for example). However the French perfect has become a real past tense in French, now called "le passé composé".

You can understand the parallel between "I have it done" (passive) and "I have done it" from intuition. But there is interference with modern grammar in which "I have it done" means "somebody (else) does it for me." Yet, the original model of the syntax meant (roughly) : "I have it done (by myself)", that is is located relative to 'I'. The repetition of the subject pronoun makes it disappear in this structure because it is not a form of insistence. Therefore only the object remains to be spoken about and we obtain what must be called "a passive participle" do + -en = done. In the "active", 'do' (for ex.) means that you find the agent to the left (or before do in the spoken chain and they object to the right (or after the verb).

The passive flexion -en simply means that the order is reverted: done means that you find the object to the left (or before do) and the agent to the right (or after done) in the spoken chain. It indicates the reversal of positions.

Now the perfect is a complex structure with two verbs. In the logical order of operations, the first is the lexical verb, here do, which is affected by -en. The consequence is that the object becomes the topic and the agent can even be deleted.

The second verb is the operator have, which in its formal use is not lexical and expresses location relative to the subject of the sentence. Contrary to the active do, the passive participle done means that the process of the verb is finished (probably because the topicalised object is now fully achieved and clearly defined. This is how the perfect aspect (not tense) is still present and expressed the benefit for the subject of a completed process (typically) in the form of its completed object.

Now, the syntax of English (and French) has always easily managed auxiliaries (be in the passive; modals; now do/does/did, etc.) So what happened when the combination of this simple passive form was combined with have was not that the object took up the final position : I <have done> IT. But rather, it was that the passive participle combined with what became an overt auxiliary have in the Verb Phrase: I have <DONE IT>.

For many verbs that were not transitive (no object) or reflexive, in early Middle English, the auxiliary was be, as in French the auxiliary is être ('be') for many verbs of this type : “Je me suis lavé” = I have washed, etc. This still exists in English in very rare expressions such as: "I'm done" meaning 'I have finished' (not 'I'm nearly dead, of course!) or: 'I'm finished' = 'I have finished' in standard English.

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You seem to want to know about the past participle.

Your question is related to some important issues, espeially, like whether the verb is transitive or intransitive because transitive verbs can be made as passive voice together with 'be' where the quality of 'adjective' occurs.

Let me explain simple but crucial concept of past participle.

The original form of 'verb' have two inflection: past and past participle

The origin of past participle is from the original 'verb'. It has regular and irregular conjugations and the criteria, of course, is the past form: regular(finish-finished-finished) and irregular(eat-ate-eaten)

Again, keep in your mind this fact that 'past participle' comes from the original form of 'verb'.

Verbs can have two participles: present participle and past participle

  1. 'present participle' also comes from the original form of 'verb' and means 'active, progressive and basically is related to 'present tense' if not combined by past forms of 'be' as well as functions as adjectives: a running boy (adjective/no specific information of tense/active)

2 'past participle' means 'passive and is related to past as you can see the 'past' in the name of 'past participle'. This is why past participle is used together 'be', 'have/has' and 'had' to form 'passive voice eand perfect tense'

Let me surmarize: past participle came from the original form of 'verb' to represent passive status together with 'be' but in many cases it has become 'adjectives' without 'be' itself for many years of time and usually have the same type of conjugations as the 'past' tense of verbs: a broken window(passive status), study/studied/studied, finish/finished/fisnished

The origin of past participle: the root verb(original verb) and it has some irregular types from the past tense of verbs

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  • your answer does not touch on the topic in the question and seems to be overly wordy. Jan 30, 2022 at 23:57
  • @MattE.Эллен Yeah, that's what I thought to make the questioner be surely aware of the concept of past participle. It seems your eyes do not see why this site exists.
    – gomadeng
    Jan 31, 2022 at 10:02
  • The question is "when did 'have it done' change to 'have done it'". Your answer does not address this. The asker already demonstrates an adequate understanding of the perfect tense and past participle as they are currently used. Jan 31, 2022 at 10:08
  • 'have it done' is a totally different concept from 'have done it'. The questioner should have had more understanding about the usage of 'have': (causative) in 'have it done' and (auxiliary) in 'have done it'. That's why I hadn't addressed the issue which you think of as the topic in the question and which I don't think of as the topic.
    – gomadeng
    Jan 31, 2022 at 10:27
  • Please read the question and the accepted answer. It is talking about the history of the language. How the language evolved from presenting past concepts using one grammatical construction to using another. Jan 31, 2022 at 14:49

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