Verb: Meaning of Present Perfect form – Part 2

June 25th, 20124:06 pm


Verb: Meaning of Present Perfect form – Part 2

Verb: Meaning of Present Perfect form – Part 1

Perfect of result

In the Perfect of result, a present state is referred to as being the result of some past situation: this is one of the clearest manifestations of the present relevance of a past situation. Thus, one of the possible differences between John has arrived and John arrived is that the former indicates persistence of the result of John’s arrival, i.e. that he is still here, whereas the second does not. In answer to the question is John here yet? a perfectly reasonable reply would be yes, he has arrived, but not yes, he arrived. Likewise, the sentence I have had breakfast implies that the results of my breakfast (that 1 am not hungry) still hold without specifying a timespan between the time of the ac­tion and the moment of speaking.

Experiential Perfect

The experiential perfect indicates that a given situation has held at least once during some time in the past leading up to the present. A useful exam­ple in English is the distinction between be and go in sentence like Bill has been to America and Bill has gone to America, since English here makes an overt distinction between the experiential Perfect and the Perfect of result. Bill has gone to America is Perfect of result, and implies that Bill is now in America, or is on his way there, this being the present result of his past action of going to (setting out for) America. In Bill has been to America, however, there is no such implication; this sentence says that on at least one occasion (though possibly on more than one) Bill did in fact go to America. In general, however, English does not have a distinct form with experiential perfect meaning.

In the examples of the experiential Perfect given so far, it has been the case that the time during which the situation referred to must have held at least once has included the whole of time up to the present. Thus Bill has been to America places no restriction on when Bill went to America, other than that it was some time before the present. It is possible to restrict the pe­riod of time by specifying an earlier limit, in addition to the necessary later limit of the present moment, as in Bill has been to America since New Year, which says that Bill has been to America at least once in the period between New Year (earlier limit) and the present moment (later limit). Perfect of persistent situation

One use of the English Perfect, indeed one that seems to be characteris­tic of English, is the use of the Perfect to describe a situation that started in the past but continues (persists) into the present, as in we’ve lived in London for years, I’ve had lunch here for years. The use of Perfect here in English is not entirely surprising, since the situation referred to is both past and present.

Perfect of recent past

In many languages, the Perfect may be used where the present relevance of the past situation referred to is simply one of temporal closeness, i.e. the past situation is very recent. In English, for instance, the general constraint against combining the Perfect with a specification of time does not hold when the time specification is the adverb recently or one of its close syno­nyms: Bill has just left, Jack has recently started up his own business.

The degree of recentness required varies among languages. For most speakers of English, only the adverb recently and its near synonyms are al­lowed, while any other specifications of past time or period are excluded, i.e. one cannot say *I’ve not had breakfast this morning during the afternoon or evening.

Perfect form and aspectual meanings

In English, as well as in many other languages, it is formally possible for the perfect/nonperfect distinction to combine freely with aspectual dis­tinctions. The possible range of meaning of such combinations of aspectual categories can be illustrated by looking at the English Perfect Progressive. If we take first of all the characteristically English use of the Perfect to refer to a persistent situation, i.e. one that continues up to the present time (and may continue beyond), then we find that the distribution of the progressive and non-progressive forms is essentially the same as in the present tense: the non-progressive form must be used with stative verbs ( *I have been knowing him for two years), while’ other verbs, unless habitual, will normally be in the Progressive (7 have been waiting for ages). With the experiential Perfect, it is quite possible for the situation in which we are interested to be an ongoing process, as in have you ever been watching a horror movie when the lights have gone out? Similarly with the Perfect of recent past, as in I have just been checking messages on my answering machine. More gener­ally, the Perfect Progressive combines the possible meanings of the Perfect with the possible meanings of the Progressive.