Past Perfect and Present Perfect Tenses

A common bugbear among students is how the various tenses of English interact with each other. Unlike many Asian languages where tenses are absent, English does require tenses to be “in concord” (to agree) or else be considered poor writing at best (and a possible situation of misunderstanding in the making).

The perfect tense itself is used differently when paired with a simple present “have” (making it the present perfect tense) and when paired with a past tense “had” (making it the past perfect tense).

Both tenses are commonly used with the past tense in a complex sentence, and most errors come about also because of this same interaction with the past tense. I have given some sample sentences and some notes to guide my students how these should be used.

Present Perfect Tense

1. Describing an experience, accomplishment or multiple actions in an unspecified time.

I have been to China.
I was in China last year. (specified time, so use the past tense)
China has recently launched an aircraft carrier.
China launched an aircraft carrier last year. (specified time, so use the past tense)
The students have taken four papers so far.
The students took four papers last week. (specified time, so use the past tense)

2. Describing a change over time.

China has not changed much since the last I left.

3. Describing an uncompleted action expected to complete.

The students have not completed their English paper yet.

4. Describing an event continuous from a time in the past till now.

Mr Chan has loved tea ever since 2004, when he moved to China.

Past Perfect Tense

1. Describing a completed event that happened even before another in the past.

I had read “The Hobbit” before I watched the movie last month.

2. Describing a duration before some point in the past.

By the time I left China last year, I had already been there for eight years.

3. The transformation of a direct speech to an indirect speech requires the use of the past perfect tense in transforming a quoted past tense. This type of synthesis/transformation question occurs often in Singapore school examinations.

Hamid replied, “James played too!”
Hamid replied that James had played too.
With this article, my students should be able to get an understanding how the various interactions between the past tense, the present perfect and the past perfect, as well as their uses in the language.

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