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Perfect Tenses in English Grammar

Have you ever...

We use Perfect Tenses to talk about a finished action, often in relation to another action.

This action can occur at any time in the past, present or future.

3 Perfect Tenses

There are three perfect tenses in English:

Past Perfect

This is used to talk about a completed action in the past. It’s usually used alongside another past tense:

After we had finished the meeting we went to a nearby pub that had just opened.

We had been waiting several hours before we realized we were waiting in the wrong mall!

For more on this, see the main articles, Past Perfect Simple‏‎ and Past Perfect Continuous‏‎.

Present Perfect

This talks about situations around the present, either just completed or happening now.

I have enjoyed working with you very much!

I have been working here for several years now.

For more on this, see the main articles, Present Perfect Simple‏‎ and Present Perfect Continuous‏‎.

Future Perfect

And as you might have guessed, the future perfect takes place in the future:

By the time you get back, I will have left for good!

When we reach Los Angeles I will have been driving for over 16 hours.

For more on this, see the main articles, Future Perfect Simple‏‎ and Future Perfect Continuous‏‎.

Perfect Tenses & TEFL

The perfect tenses tend to be quite difficult for students to master, especially because often they will not occur in the students’ mother tongue. Another problem is that often a perfect tense can be replaced by another tense in English; both of these, for example, are acceptable:

After we finished the meeting we all went home.

After we had finished the meeting we all went home.

As a TEFL‏‎ teacher you can explain how to form the perfect tenses fairly simply, but it is the usage where you will likely find most problems. Here it is a matter of offering your class plenty of examples and extensive practice in selecting which tense is the most appropriate to use. Ideally, of course, you would have the students learn how to use the tenses without explicitly teaching them or even identifying them. It does not take much for students to learn a basic construction such as:

Have you ever…

Of course, a great resource are timelines‏‎ and it will pay off to use these in class to give your students a visual representation of when perfect tenses are appropriate.

Linguistic Note

Technically speaking perfect tenses belong to the grammatical category of aspect‏‎. Aspect refers to the nature of the action described by the verb. There are three aspects: indefinite (or simple), complete (or perfect), continuing (or progressive).

In Linguistics‏‎, the grammatical aspect of a verb defines the temporal flow (or its lack) in the described event or state. For example, in English the difference between I walk and I am walking is a difference of aspect, not tense.

Tense and aspect are formally separated in the English language but when it comes to everyday usage the two tend to merge and we generally talk about perfect tense rather than perfect aspect.

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