All conjugated verbs in English express grammatical tense, grammatical aspect, grammatical voice, and grammatical mood. Tense is the grammaticalized expression of time. Aspect is the grammaticalized expression of temporal structure. Mood is the expression of modality. Voice is the expression of relationships between predicate and nominal functions. The present perfect typically refers to verbs in the present tense, perfect aspect, indicative mood, and active voice.
The present perfect can be defined as a verb form that expresses and emphasizes a previous action or state that began in the past and continued up to the present and whose consequences have implications for the present. For example, the sentence The train has arrived on time contains the verb phrase has arrived, which is an example of the present perfect. The use of the present perfect in this example indicates both that the arrival of the train began in the past and ended in the present and that the train is presumably still wherever it arrived now.
Formation of the Present Perfect
The present perfect is a periphrastic verb form, which means a “phrase of two or more words that perform a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word.” Verbs in the present perfect are therefore formed by the present tense form of the verb have followed by a past participle. Past participles may be regular or irregular. The verb phrase patterns for the present perfect are as follows:
- first person singular – have + past participle – I have written the essay.
- second person singular – have + past participle – Have you called the caterer?
- third person singular – has + past participle – The child has eaten the cookies.
- first person plural – have + past participle – We have turned in our homework.
- second person plural – have + past participle – You have broken your leg.
- third person plural – have + past participle – They have lived in Europe for three years.
Notice that the verb phrase pattern for the present perfect is identical in all persons and numbers except for the third person singular.
Use of the Present Perfect
Because the present perfect expresses previous actions or states with present implications, the verb form most often occurs in sentences that express the following situations:
- Experiences and accomplishments
- Changes over time
- Incomplete actions with expected ends
- Continuous actions with starting points in the past
- Past actions with present results
- Multiple actions at different times
- My aunt has written me a letter.
- The visitors have arrived at the train station.
- I have purchased some more diapers.
- Rabbits have destroyed my garden.
- Have you worked here long?
The present perfect may express more than one use within a single sentence. For example, the sentence She has worked in the library for thirty-five years expresses both an experience as well as a continuous action with a past starting point.
The following visual illustrates the uses of the perfect aspects of English verbs:
The present perfect expresses previous actions or states with present implications.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.