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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Submitted by SonuKumar on Fri, 23/03/2018 - 15:58

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Sir, Have you eaten something today after you have done the worship ? Now Could I also use past simple for saying the same thing like this (After you did the worship) ?

Hi SonuKumar,

Thanks for clarifying that. 'have eaten' is not really correct because it clearly refers to a past action that is already finished, since other events have occurred after it (the worship, for example). And if you use the past simple for 'eat', then the present perfect doesn't work in the subordinate clause beginning with 'after'. Also, 'do worship' isn't a collocation in standard English.

In other words, I'd recommend 'Did you eat anything after you worshipped?' In English, worship if often referred to by another word. For example, in a Catholic context, one would say 'after mass'. In a Protestant context, it would be 'after church' or 'after the service'. I've seen some reference to 'after prayer' in Muslim contexts. Something like this would be more natural than 'after your worshipped'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Fri, 23/03/2018 - 08:41

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Sir, Have you had something today after you have done worship or you did worship at 7:30 p.m, a short while ago or in the evening ? I think in subordinate clause, we can you use either past simple or present perfect, but if you use present perfect, you can't use one of the adverbs or prepositional phrases given above with past simple right ?

Hello SonuKumar,

Could you please write the sentences or phrases that you are asking about inside speech marks ('like this') or in brackets (like this)? That would help us understand your question better.

Also, when you say 'Have you had something', are you referring to food? I don't quite understand what you mean without the context.

Thanks in advance.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sanuzoku on Sun, 14/01/2018 - 19:17

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Hello! I have 2 questions to you. Sometimes, I dont really understand the difference between perfective aspect and past tenses. For example, what are the differences between those phrases? It was the best meal I've had all week - vs - It was the best meal I had all that week. I've got milk - vs - I got the milk. Secondly, are there some perfect counterparts for the perfect aspect? Some semantic contribution? For phrases like, for example: I hope to finish soon. She is very helpful. I want to find counterparts for "finish" and "is" in sentences above. Looking forward to your response, it will help me a lot with understanding of grammar! Best wishes!

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 15/01/2018 - 08:33

In reply to by Sanuzoku

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Hello Sanuzoku,

Generally speaking, the perfect forms are used to describe a time period which has not yet finished (present perfect) or a time which had not yet finished at a point in the past (past perfect).

 

For example, the differences between the sentences you quote are as follows:

  1. It was the best meal I've had all week
  2. It was the best meal I had all that week.

In sentence 1 we understand that the week has not finished. You might say this, for example, on Friday and so you can still have more meals before the week finishes. The perfect form here has the meaning of 'up to now' or 'so far'. It describes an unfinished time.

In sentence 2 the week is finished. You are talking about last week, or you are speaking late on Saturday evening (if we say Saturday is the last day of the week) and know that there will be no more meals before the end of the week. The past simple here has the meaning of 'then' or 'in the past'. It describes a time which is finished, over and complete.

 

  1. I've got milk
  2. I got the milk.

The difference here is how we see the actions. In the first sentence we see getting the milk as something which is still part of the present (still part of an unfinished time). You might have just come back from the shop and have the milk in hand, for example. In some way the information is news to the person you are speaking to - perhaps they are making coffee and don't know that there is milk in the fridge, for example.

In the second sentence getting the milk is done and is no longer part of the present. Perhaps you don't want to go to the shop again and are telling them about the milk to show that it is their turn now. Or perhaps you are arguing about who should pay for something else.

It's hard to be certain without knowing the context, but these are some likely uses of each form.

 

I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean in your second question by 'perfect counterparts for the perfect aspect'. Perhaps you can explain or provide an example.

 

The perfect aspect is difficult because there are many languages which have no equivalent, including the Polish language, and because it is usually a choice for the speaker, not something which must be used. There is often a choice of using a perfect form or something else, and our choice depends on what we want to emphasise. This makes it very difficult to grasp through rules. However, the more you read and listen to English then more you will develop a sense of when the perfect form is appropriate, even without explicit rules. After all, native speakers of English (or any other language) do not generally think about grammatical rules when speaking or writing. Instead they rely on a sense of what is appropriate for a given context and intention.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Gautam modi on Wed, 15/11/2017 - 18:23

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Hi sir........ Which is right answer..... Why should a man have/has unilateral power? Please explain me.

Hello Gautam,

'have' is the correct form. All verbs following modal auxiliary verbs (in this sentence, 'should') go in the bare infinitive form ('have' is the bare infinitive).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amrita_enakshi on Fri, 27/10/2017 - 04:12

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Hello sir In the following sentences: 1. The match is over. They (have been watching/ have watched) it for the whole day. 2. She (has watched / has been watching) T.V. for one hour. But now she is doing her homework. As per my understanding in both the sentences the progressive option seems correct but none of the actions are continuing till the present. Should it be present perfect then? Tense order got me confused!

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 27/10/2017 - 08:46

In reply to by amrita_enakshi

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Hello amrita_enakshi,

We use the present perfect when the time period is not complete, or when it continues up to the moment of speaking.

Your first sentence could be formulated with the present perfect if the match has only just finished - in other words if the people in question were watching it right up to the moment of speaking.

The present perfect does not work in the second sentence in my opinion as the time period is clearly in the past. The person described is not starting her homework but is in the process of doing it (as the present continuous is used) and so the watching much have ended earlier. Therefore a past tense would be appropriate here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Xecutor on Tue, 17/10/2017 - 18:21

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Could you help me, Sir? Throughout history, both ancient and modern, men _____ fond of waging war. or Thank you.

Hello Xecutor,

I'm afraid we don't provide help with exercises from elsewhere like this. We would end up doing homework and tests for everyone if we did!

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Could you pick the right one as i am confused between have and had reference. 1.Throughout history, both ancient and modern, men have been fond of waging war. 2.Throughout history, both ancient and modern, men had been fond of waging war. Thank you.

Hello Xecutor,

If it is still true that men are fond of waging war then the correct choice is 'have been'. If men were fond of waging war but now are not (an unlikely proposition!) then the correct choice would be 'had been'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Taket on Sat, 14/10/2017 - 07:24

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Hi, could explain me correct form "She could have left a message" or it should be "She could has left a message". Thank you.

Hello Taket,

The correct form here is 'could have'. We do not use 'has' after a modal verb.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ola Jamal on Tue, 19/09/2017 - 16:36

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Hello, This topic is really confusing me! ( In a few years they will have discovered a cure for the common cold. In a few years they will discover a cure for the common cold. ) Is there a different in meaning between these sentences? (I would have helped you, but you didn’t ask me. I would help you, but you didn’t ask me.) Is there a different in meaning between these sentences too?

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 19/09/2017 - 18:09

In reply to by Ola Jamal

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Hello Ola Jamal,

In the first pair of sentences (about the cure), there is just a slight difference of emphasis, but other than that they mean the same thing. The one with the future perfect looks back on the discovery from a point futher in the future, but for all intents and purposes otherwise they mean exactly the same thing.

In the second pair of sentences there is a difference in meaning. The sentence with 'would' speaks about a hypothetical or unreal action either now or in the future, whereas the sentence with 'would have' speaks about an unreal action in the past, i.e. an action that didn't take place. In the sentence with 'would', I could still help you, but in the one with 'would have', it is no longer possible.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Xalmolxis on Sun, 10/09/2017 - 12:35

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Hi, All. I have a doubt. How should I say: "I will phone at six o’clock. I should have got home by then" or "I will phone at six o’clock. I should get home by then"

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 10/09/2017 - 18:44

In reply to by Xalmolxis

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Hello Xalmolxis,

Both forms are grammatically correct. The second one (with a simpler verb form) is probably more common in informal speaking. We also often use 'be' for the second verb ('I should be home by then').

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amrita_enakshi on Sat, 09/09/2017 - 08:39

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Hello sir , in the following sentence - You must compare prices before you buy anything. Both 'must compare' and 'buy' seem to be FINITE VERBS? Though they don't change with the change of the subject to first or third person , they change with the change of the tense order. Ex. We should have 'compared' prices before we 'bought' anything.( Past ) Can a sentence be formed without a non finite verb?

Hello amrita,

I'd say 'compare' is a nonfinite verb, as it is the bare infinitive form (due to it following the modal verb 'must'), and 'buy' is clearly finite -- it has a subject ('you'). 'have compared' (in 'should have compared') is a perfective infinitive, which is also a nonfinite form.

A 'complete' sentence in English requires a subject and a verb, which means it must have a finite form.

These kinds of questions are a bit beyond the scope of what we do here at LearnEnglish, so if you have any other questions on this, I'd recommend the Wikipedia.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Sun, 03/09/2017 - 09:18

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Sir, I Know that We can generally ask a question to someone like this- How long have you been working here or How long has it been since you have been working here but Could we also say that (How long has it been to you to have been working here) ? and the same here. Generally We can ask a question to someone like this- How long have you been here but Could we also ask that How long ago have you arrived or come or reached here ?

Hello SonuKumar,

No, I'm afraid that the structure you ask about in your first question doesn't work in English. As for your second question, 'how long ago' is possible but it sounds awkward to use the present perfect with it, as it implies a finished past time -- in which case the past simple should be used (e.g. 'How long ago did you arrive'). In any case, I'd recommend using 'how long have you been here' for most situations.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by davidabdenago on Wed, 30/08/2017 - 13:38

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Hi All. I have a doubt. I can to write "It’ve been raining for hours", or only "It’s been raining for hours". Regards¡¡¡

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 31/08/2017 - 08:42

In reply to by davidabdenago

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Hello davidabdenago,

You need to use the singular form 'is' here because 'it' is a singular form:

It's been raining for hours.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by amrita_enakshi on Sat, 26/08/2017 - 16:14

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Hello sir, I have a doubt in the following sentence. She told me that the dam has broken so water is entering forcibly. Or She told me that the dam has been broken so water is entering forcibly. As per my understanding the former seems correct and if were to use 'been' then an adverbial of time should be used , like ' She told me that the dam has been broken since (morning/yesterday) so water is entering forcibly.

Hello amrita_enakshi,

It's not necessary to use an adverbial of time here, though it's certainly possible. 'break' is an ergative verb, so the first version of the sentence is more common (though the second is also possible).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Slava B on Sat, 26/08/2017 - 11:06

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Thanks a lot Peter for comprehensive answer...

Submitted by Slava B on Fri, 25/08/2017 - 19:09

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Hello Team! What Tense is more correct in the following example? Imagine situation: I stand before group of people whom I am going to take on some excursion,and I want them understand that it will be conducted in a way different from anything they have seen before ,so I tell them : 1. Well guys,do you want to take part in excursion you have never been before on ? 2. Do you want to take part in excursion you never was on in the past? Or both options are possible in this context?,or it depends on what I want emphasize?

Hello Slava B,

You would use the present perfect here as it refers to all of the listeners' lives up to the present moment. However, we would use a different phrase:

Well guys,do you want to take part in an excursion like none you've ever experienced / like none you've ever seen / unlike any you've ever experienced / unlike any you've ever seen?

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Victorine on Sat, 12/08/2017 - 18:34

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Hi all, I would like to know how to use present perfect and continuous when I speak. It is not easy in the sentences. Thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 13/08/2017 - 09:09

In reply to by Victorine

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Hello Victorine,

It's hard for me to explain this in a brief comment. Fortunately, we have a page on the topic of present perfect simple and continuous which should clarify the area for you. You can find that page here. If you have any specific questions after looking at this and trying the exercises then we'll be happy to try to help.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by CK on Thu, 20/07/2017 - 09:52

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could you explain the differences between "Could have" and "Must have" and how to use them? from the context " I checked my cell phone. She could have left a message". Meaning that she did or didn't leave a message? Thanks

Hello CK,

'could have' means that it is possible she left a message and 'must have' means that we suppose she left a message. In other words, 'could have' indicates much less certainty than 'must have'. See the 'Deductions and conclusions' section of this Cambridge Dictionary page for more on this use of 'must'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Momocompanyman on Wed, 12/07/2017 - 11:32

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Dear Sir Kirk : what is the right meaning of : by then in the context : I can come out tonight. I'll have finished my homework by then. Best wishes

Hello medmomo,

'by' means 'at or before' in this context and 'then' refers to 'tonight'. This person is saying that she can go out at night because she will finish her homework before the night.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ogeday on Fri, 16/06/2017 - 20:55

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Hi ... you say that we use the present perfect to show that something has continued up to the present. So, in this sentence "They’ve been married for nearly fifty years", is there a meaning that they are now divorced or one of them is dead? Thanks.

Hello Ogeday,

The present perfect is used in this example to describe an unfinished past, so when we say 'They've been married for nearly fifty years' we mean that their marriage began in the past (fifty years ago) and is still continuing at the moment of speaking. In other words, they are still married.

If the marriage was over then we would not use the present perfect but rather say 'They were married for fifty years' or 'They had been married for fifty years', depending on the context.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Peter. If it is unfinished and if we are expecting that it will go on sometime in the future, can we use present perfect continuous tense here ... "They've been marrying for nearly fifty years"?

Hello Ogeday,

No, we would not use the continuous form here. The verb in the original example is not 'marry' but rather 'be'; 'married' is an adjective. You could replace 'married' with other adjectives:

They have been happy for a long time.

They have been unemployed for a year.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Freya on Mon, 05/06/2017 - 15:29

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Dear English team, In my english test I am supposed to talk about a recent experience using the Present Perfect. I would like to talk about my trip to Amsterdam in March. Could you please clarify, if I can start the conversation with the Present Perfect and then continue with the Past Simple because the trip is now in the past? For example, I have been on a trip to Amsterdam recently. They were street parties throughout the City and people were celebrating. I also saw a big rock concert…. many thanks Freya

Hello Freya,

You're right in thinking that you'll probably mostly need to use the past simple instead of the present perfect. If you use 'recently' in your first sentence, the past simple is really the best form. If you want to use present perfect in your first sentence, then I'd recommend starting with a time expression that includes the time you wre in Amsterdam as well as the present moment, e.g. 'this month', 'this spring' or 'this year', e.g. 'This spring I've been on a trip to Amsterdam. It was in early April, and there were street parties ...'.

It sounds as if you already understand this topic well, but if you want to brush up on it, I'd recommend taking a quick look at our talking about the past page and the videos on Jobs Scene 2 – Language Focus and Transport and Travel Scene 2 – Language Focus.

Good luck on your exam!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ivarsps on Tue, 25/04/2017 - 22:19

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And one more question. Can I say "I hope you understand that we will have made less job today"? Thx

Hello ivarsps,

When you say 'we will have made less job', I think what you mean is 'we will have done less work'. There is a good explanation of the difference between 'work' and 'job' on this BBC page. We use the verb 'do' (not 'make') with the word 'work'.

If I've misunderstood you, please let me know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ivarsps on Tue, 25/04/2017 - 11:03

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Hello. May I say "We stopped working 20 minutes ago. We haven't been working for already 20 minutes"? Thank you.

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 26/04/2017 - 06:58

In reply to by ivarsps

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Hello ivarsps,

I think the best way to express this would be as follows:

We stopped working 20 minutes ago. We haven't been working for 20 minutes already.

or

We stopped working 20 minutes ago. It has been 20 minutes since we were working.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by guddeti sahasra on Fri, 07/04/2017 - 06:52

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she has prepared the breakfast since he came here she has been preparing breakfast since he camehere which one is correct? can we use situation after since in present perfect continuous tense?