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Perfect aspect

Level: intermediate

We use perfect aspect to look back from a specific time and talk about things up to that time or about things that are important at that time.

We use the present perfect to look back from the present:

I have always enjoyed working in Italy. [and I still do]
She has left home, so she cannot answer the phone.

We use the past perfect to look back from a time in the past:

It was 2006. I had enjoyed working in Italy for the past five years.
She had left home, so she could not answer the phone.

We use will with the perfect to look back from a time in the future:

By next year I will have worked in Italy for 15 years.
She will have left home by 8.30, so she will not be able to answer the phone.

Present perfect

We use the present perfect:

  • for something that started in the past and continues in the present:

They've been married for nearly 50 years.
She has lived in Liverpool all her life.

  • when we are talking about our experience up to the present:

I've seen that film before.
I've played the guitar ever since I was a teenager.
He has written three books and he is working on another one.

  • for something that happened in the past but is important in the present:

I can't get in the house. I've lost my keys.
Teresa isn't at home. I think she has gone shopping.

We normally use the present perfect continuous to emphasise that something is still continuing in the present:

It's been raining for hours.
I'm tired out. I've been working all day.

Past perfect

We use the past perfect:

  • for something that started in the past and continued up to a later time in the past:

When George died, he and Anne had been married for nearly 50 years.
She didn't want to move. She had lived in Liverpool all her life.

  • when we are reporting our experience up to a point in the past:

My eighteenth birthday was the worst day I had ever had.
I was pleased to meet George. I hadn't met him before, even though I had met his wife several times.

  • for something that happened in the past and is important at a later time in the past:

I couldn't get into the house. I had lost my keys.
Teresa wasn't at home. She had gone shopping.

We use the past perfect continuous to show that something started in the past and continued up to a time in the past or was important at that time in the past:

Everything was wet. It had been raining for hours.
He was a wonderful guitarist. He had been playing ever since he was a teenager.

Modals with the perfect

We use will with the perfect to show that something will be complete at or before some time in the future:

In a few years they will have discovered a cure for the common cold.
I can come out tonight. I'll have finished my homework by then.

We use would with the perfect to refer to something that did not happen in the past:

If you had asked me, I would have helped you.
I would have helped you, but you didn't ask me.
You didn't ask me or I would have helped you.

We use other modals with the perfect when we are looking back from a point in time. The point of time may be in the future:

We'll meet again next week. We might have finished the work by then.
I will phone at six o'clock. He should have got home by then.

or the present:

It's getting late. They should have arrived by now.
He's still not here. He must have missed his train.

or the past:

I wasn't feeling well. I must have eaten something bad.
I checked my mobile phone. She could have left a message.

Perfect aspect 1

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Perfect aspect 2

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Perfect aspect 3

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Comments

1) They have kept telling me that I am a fool.
Is this the same meaing with " They have been telling me that I am a fool."
If not, why?

Hi DaniWeebKage,

The meanings are similar. Both sentences emphasise that this action ('telling me that I am a fool') has been going on or continuing for some time, but the first version uses vocabulary (i.e., the meaning of kept) to show this meaning. The second version uses grammar (i.e. the use of the present perfect continuous) to show this meaning.

I hope that helps!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. Could we use "before + perfect tenses"? For example, are the following sentences correct? Why?
1- Before he has arrived, we will leave.
2- Before he had arrived, we left.
3- Before she has cooked, we will arrive home.
4- Before she has got married, she will be 25.
Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

Yes! All these sentences are correct. We can use present perfect or past perfect with before to show an action that is/was not done or not completed at the time a second action happened.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Jonathan. So what is the difference in meaning between the two sentences in each pair of the following sentences?
1a- Before he has arrived, we will leave.
1b- Before he arrives, we will leave.
2a- Before he had arrived, we left.
2b- Before he arrived, we left.
3a- Before she has cooked, we will arrive home.
3b- Before she cooks, we will arrive home.
Thank you so much.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

The a and b versions basically mean the same thing, but the a versions mean more emphatically that the second mentioned action happens before the first mentioned action is completed (not just before it happens). The b versions just mean that the second mentioned action happens before the first mentioned one happens, without any special focus on it being completed or not. 

This difference might be particularly relevant when talking about actions that take some time to complete, e.g. cooking in example 3a/3b. But in many other situations, either version would work.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan, I just want to confirm whether you have received my queries about the usage of "ever" that I posted on this page in the course of last week because my queries have been missing on this page for a few days and I have not received your answer yet. If you haven't already read my questions, I'll post them again here.
I look forward to your reply.

Hi Melvin,

Do you mean this message on another page? :)

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

hello.
I was furious when my new computer stopped working. I'd had it for just two weeks!
answer: experience up to the present??
Just as they left the railway station, they realised that they'd got on the wrong train.
answer: something that happened in the past but is important in the present??
(past perfect)

Hello alaa.saood,

The first sentence talks about something that started in the past (I got the computer) and continued up to a later time in the past (the computer stopped working). The past perfect form in the second sentence refers to something that happened in the past (getting on the wrong train) and is important at a later time in the past (when they were stuck on the wrong train as it left the station).

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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