Author Topic: The perfect tenses are my “major, major” English grammar setback  (Read 9687 times)

Joe Carillo

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I received the following e-mail from Forum member Miss Mae (February 6, 2011):

Dear Mr. Carillo,

Ironically, when I became aware of my grammatical sins in college, I grew more confused. In fact, I am not sure till now of the proper usage of the auxiliary verbs “has,” “have,” and “had.” Whenever I have to use those words, I find myself considering first if the subject of the verb they are helping is still alive and kicking. If I remain unsure, I would try every grammatical strategy I know just to avoid using these auxiliary verbs.

This very confusion has been affecting my quest for plain and simple English, which of course is your advocacy. Could you please help me put my doubts to rest? I had tried to avoid asking you this question, but I think it’s high time I did. Please help.

Respectfully,
Miss Mae

My reply to Miss Mae:

I perfectly understand your confusion over the usage of “have” as verbal auxiliary. I must say, though, that the best grammatical strategy for dealing with its three forms—“have,” “has,” and “had”—is not to avoid using them but to understand them thoroughly. I therefore think that your decision to ask about their proper usage is a major step forward.

Let’s begin by looking at the grammatical uses of “have” as verbal auxiliary. We will recall that “have,” “has,” and “had” are used with the past participle form of the verb to form its present perfect tense, past perfect tense, and future perfect tense. The past participle is, of course, the form that the verb takes to express completed action, such as “repaired” for “repair,” “taken” for “take,” and “bought” for “buy.”

Present perfect usage when the doer of the action is in the third person

For the present perfect, the verbal auxiliary “have” is used when the doer of the action is in the third-person plural, as in “The job applicants have taken an English refresher course.” When there’s only one doer of the action in the third-person, the form “has” is used instead, as in “The job applicant has taken an English refresher course.” “Amelia has taken an English refresher course.” “She has taken an English refresher course.”

Present perfect usage when the doer of the action is in the first person or second person

Take careful note, though, that when the doer of the action is in the first person (“I” and “we”) or in the second person (“you” in both its singular and plural forms), the verbal auxiliary “have” is used in the present perfect, as in these examples: “I have taken an English refresher course.” “We have taken an English refresher course.” “You have taken an English refresher course.” (This irregularity in usage often confuses English learners because “I” and “you” are actually pronouns in the singular form, yet they use the plural form “have” as auxiliary verb in the perfect tense. You need to get used to this irregularity to become confident in your usage of the perfect tenses.)

Past perfect usage

For the past perfect tense, whether singular or plural and regardless of whether the doer of the action is in the first person, second person, or third person, the verbal auxiliary “have” consistently takes the form of “had,” as in: “The job applicant had taken an English refresher course.” “The job applicants had taken an English refresher course.” “I had taken an English refresher course.” “We had taken an English refresher course.” “Ofelia and Fred had taken an English refresher course.”

Future perfect usage

For the future perfect tense, the verbal auxiliary “have” is preceded by another auxiliary, “will,” and this is whether the doer of the action is singular or plural and regardless of whether the doer of the action is in the first person, second person, or third person, as in these examples: “The job applicant will have taken the English refresher course by next month.” “The job applicants will have taken the English refresher course by next month.” “I will have taken the English refresher course by next month.” “Helen will have taken the English refresher course by next month.” “They will have taken the English refresher course by next month.” “Both of us will have taken the English refresher course by next month.”

I hope this explanation has adequately clarified the usage of the auxiliary verbs “have,” “has,” and “had” for you.

P.S. To give this discussion a wider, more comprehensive perspective, let me very briefly define here what the perfect tenses are in the first place. The perfect tenses describe an action or occurrence more fully as it has unfolded or is unfolding in time. The term “perfect” is used here not in the sense of “flawless or exact in every detail” but of “perfected” or “completed” action. The perfect tenses—the present perfect, the past perfect, and the future perfect—denote events or states that have ended, are ending, or will end in time. Precisely at what point in time that end had occurred or will occur will determine which of the perfect tenses will be used.

The timelines for the perfect tenses are discussed extensively in Section 10 of my book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language (Manila Times Publishing, 498 pages).

« Last Edit: February 07, 2011, 09:19:43 PM by Joe Carillo »