Perfect Aspect of Verb Construction

Woman grading papers
She will have finished grading the papers by 4pm. Hero Images / Getty Images

In English grammar, perfect aspect is a verb construction that describes events occurring in the past but linked to a later time, usually the present. In English, the perfect aspect is formed with has, have or had + the past participle (also known as the -en form).

Perfect Aspect, Present Tense

Formed with has or have plus the past participle of the main verb:
"I have tried to know absolutely nothing about a great many things, and I have succeeded fairly well." (Robert Benchley)

Perfect Aspect, Past Tense

Formed with had plus the past participle of the main verb:
"He was contented with life. He found it very comfortable to be heart-free and to have enough money for his needs. He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: he wondered if they had ever tried to do without it." (William Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, 1915)

Future Perfect

Formed with will have or shall have plus the past participle of the main verb:
"By the age of six the average child will have completed the basic American education and be ready to enter school." (Russell Baker, "School vs. Education." So This Is Depravity, 1983)

The Present Perfect and the Past Perfect

"Present perfect verbs often refer to past actions with effects that continue up to the present time. For example, consider the sentence:

Mr. Hawke has embarked on a crusade.

The action (embarking on a crusade) began sometime previously, but Mr. Hawke continues to be on the crusade at the time this sentence was written.

In contrast, the past perfect verbs refer to actions in the past that are completed at or before a given time in the past. The actual time is often specified:

Two brothers told a court yesterday how they watched their terminally ill mother 'fade away' after she was given an injection. Widow Lilian Boyes, 70, had earlier pleaded with doctors to 'finish her off,' Winchester Crown Court heard.

In this example, the events of the second sentence--the pleading--are completed by the time of the events described in the first sentence. The first sentence describes a past time with the simple past tense, and then the past perfect is used in the second sentence to refer to an even earlier time." (Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Longman, 2002)

The Future Perfect

"The future perfect is formed with will followed by have and the past participle of the main verb. It is generally used to express an action that will be completed prior to or by some specified future time. Accomplishment verbs are especially common in sentences with the future perfect, as in (55). These verbs are often followed by gerundive complements, like grading the papers in the example.

(55) I will have finished grading the papers { before or by} 4:00 p.m.

However, the future perfect can also be used to express states that will have endured for a period of time as measured at some future date, as in (56), in which being married is the state.

This coming January we will have been married for 30 years.

As with the past perfect, sentences with a future perfect often have a main clause and a subordinate clause. In these sentences, the future action is completed prior to another action in a subordinate clause introduced by before or by the time. The verb in this subordinate clause may be in the present perfect, as in (57a), or the simple present, as in (57b).

(57a) He will have finished grading all of his papers by the time you've eaten your lunch.
(57b) He will have completed the negotiations by the time you arrive."

(Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Perfect Aspect in British English and American English

"In fact, British and American English differ in their use of the perfect. The perfect is more widely used in British English. Where a British speaker would tend to say Have you seen Bill today?, an American speaker would tend to say Did you see Bill today? Where a British English speaker would tend to say I have just had breakfast, an American speaker would tend to say I just had breakfast." (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Perfect Aspect of Verb Construction." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Perfect Aspect of Verb Construction. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Perfect Aspect of Verb Construction." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).