Teaching Perfect Tenses

Ways to teach the Perfect tenses together to make both the more common tenses and the less common ones easier to understand and remember

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

Students use up so much energy on the five uses of the Present Perfect (quite possibly none of which match with their own language), that they usually have little power left for the much rarer Past Perfect and Future Perfect, let alone their evil twins the Present Perfect Continuous, Past Perfect Continuous and Future Perfect Continuous. Actually, though, there is no need for either the teacher or the students to look at the situation this way because all the uses of the Present Perfect can be covered by one simple explanation, and a slight extension of that covers the whole of the “Perfect Aspect”. And the explanation is (drum roll!):

Linking two times together

The five uses of the Present Perfect are:

1. Experiences/In my life (e.g. questions with “Have you ever…?”)

2. Past actions with present consequences (e.g. comparing “I’ve broken my leg” to “I broke my leg when I was a teenager”)

3. Unfinished time (e.g. “this week”, “today” and “this morning” when it is not yet noon)

4. Before now (the meaning of sentences with “yet” and “already”)

5. Very close to now (sentences with “just”)

You might have noticed that three of the explanations above include the words “present” or “now”, and that is the overall explanation of why we use the Present Perfect – to show the link between the past and present.

I also use this explanation to explain away one of the things that can really make students give up with the Present Perfect, which is the fact that many speakers don’t use that tense in all five cases. This is especially true with American English speakers with the fourth and fifth meanings. I tend to say that these two examples are the ones with the most tenuous link to the present, perhaps giving us a reason why not all people use the Present Perfect in those cases. For example, if I say “I’ve just made a cup of tea” it was probably at least a minute ago, but “I’ve made a cup of tea a minute ago” is incorrect, despite describing the same situation. However, as “a minute ago” doesn’t emphasise the recentness of the action in the same way as “just”, this can also be seen to be a reason for using different tenses. We can therefore perhaps see that there are good reasons both for “I just went there” and “I’ve just been there”.

One way of showing the connection between the present and the past in the Present Perfect is with timelines. If I say “I went to France three times in 1987”, the three crosses representing my visits are all in the segment of time that represents the year 1987, with a large empty space between that time and the dotted line that shows the present. This shows that there is no connection between those visits and now, and hence no connection to the present when we use the Simple Past. If we say “I have been to France three times since 1987”, however, the period in which those visits happens starts at 1987 and stretches all the way until now, as we don’t know how long ago the last visit was and I could very well visit again. This shows the contrast between the Simple Past and the Present Perfect.

We can now take that Present Perfect timeline for “I have been to France three times since 1987” and move it left (into the past), for example so that 1987 is now the end of the period rather than the beginning (making the period from 1964 to 1987). With this one simple change we have made the timeline into one which represents a Past Perfect sentence, in this case “I had been to France three times by 1987.” This shows the essential similarity between the Present Perfect and Past Perfect tenses. The explanation for why we use the Past Perfect in this case, which is because we want to link together two past times, also shows the similarities to the Present Perfect. In other words, the Present Perfect shows a link between the present and the past and the Past Perfect shows a link between the past and a previous time or event, and so what they have in common is linking two times together.

We should therefore expect the Future Perfect to also link together two times, at least one of which is in the future and create a Future Perfect timeline just by moving everything right. And indeed you can create the timeline for “I will have visited France three times” together with times such as “by the end of next year” “by 2033” and “by 2050” (depending on how far right you move the timeline). These examples show that the Future Perfect can connect the past and future (e.g. from the start of my present job to when I retire at the end of next year), the present and future (now and 2033), and two future times.

All five of the uses of the Present Perfect can be moved into the past or future with a change of time clause in the same way. For example:

1. “I’ve never been to Spain”, “I had never been to Spain (so I was really excited about going there)” and “I won’t have managed to get to Spain (to see you) by the time you visit again (so please make sure you drop by and say hello)”

2. “I’ve finally passed my driving test”, “I’d already passed my driving test (and he hadn’t, so I had to do all the driving)” and “I will have passed my driving test by the end of the month (so you can drink and I’ll drive when we next go to a country pub together)”

3. “I haven’t done much work this week”, “I hadn’t done much work that week (so I felt guilty all weekend)” and “I won’t have got much work done by Friday (so I’ll have to work at the weekend)”

4. “I’ve already tried kangaroo meat (so I don’t really see the need to eat it again)”, “I had already tried kangaroo meat (so I wasn’t as disgusted as they had expected me to be)” and “I will have tried kangaroo meat by the end of today (so you’d better find me another challenge)”

5. “I’ve just woken up (so please excuse me not being able to follow your complicated explanation)”, “I’d just woken up (so I wasn’t sure if it really was smoke or just sleep in my eyes)” and “I will have just woken up (so please let yourself in instead of ringing the bell)”

The Perfect Simple and Perfect Continuous tenses

Many people say that there is little point spending much time on the Past Perfect and Future Perfect tenses given how seldom native and non-native speakers use them. In my experience, however, getting students using complex tenses is the easiest way of persuading people who listen to them that they have a high language level, and therefore an important thing to spend some time on in preparation for the CAE, CPE and higher scores in the IELTS speaking and writing tests. Furthermore, it could be said that I’m not actually suggesting teaching those tenses, as the students basically already know them if they know the specific and general uses of the Present Perfect. Instead, I see a lesson on the Past Perfect as another lesson on the Perfect Aspect, with the mix of revision (making the links between the tenses clear, and treating that partly as a revision of the Present Perfect) and a new point or two (e.g. speaking practice of the Past Perfect with “by”) that all good lessons on specific language points should have.

The same thing could be argued about introducing or revising the even rarer Past Perfect Continuous and Future Perfect Continuous tenses, which again I see more as a good chance to revise and clear up the uses of the Present Perfect Continuous tense than as yet another tense to get the hang of.

The most generalisable explanation for the difference tenses used in “I’ve finished the living room” and “It seems like I’ve been cleaning all day” is that the Present Perfect (Simple) in the first sentence concentrates on the result (a clean living room) and the Present Perfect Continuous in the second sentence concentrates on the action (endlessly moving the hoover backwards and forwards). This is why How many…?/How much…? questions are usually with the Present Perfect Simple (e.g. “How many cups of tea have you had so far today?”) and How long…? questions are usually Present Perfect Continuous (e.g. “How long have you been going out with him?”) Using the other tense can even change the meaning, as in the contrast between “How many men have you gone out with (this year/since your divorce/in your life)?” and “How many men have you been going out with (at the same time)?” The exceptions are state verbs (which can never be used in any Continuous tense) and verbs where there isn’t a clear distinction between action and result and so no difference between the two tenses (e.g. “work” in “How long have you worked here?” and “How long have you been working here?”)

Exactly the same explanations work for the differences in tense between “How many times had you met him (when he proposed)?” and “How long had you been going out with him (when you found out that he was married)?” (“How many” versus “How long”), and “Will you have finished the report by the deadline?” and “How long will you have been living here (by the time you retire)?” (result versus action).

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
December 2010 | Filed under Teaching
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