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The 'wonderful' world of the perfect tenses

Is there an easy answer to what exactly are the perfect tenses in English?

by Roger Hartopp, adapted from his book Typical Errors in English, and from Advanced Grammar in Use by Martin Hewings


Let me start this text with some warm-up questions for you.


Do you know how to use all the tenses in the English language in writing and speaking?


What particular tenses do you have difficulty using/understanding? Do you have similar tenses in your own language?


Have there been any excellent explanations on the perfect tenses that helped you to learn and understand them?

We have the present perfect, the present perfect continuous, past perfect, past perfect continuous, future perfect and future perfect continuous, but do you understand them? What do we use them for? And how do they work in the passive?

Well, if you just want a nice, simple explanation of all the perfect tenses, then good luck.

I present to you a fairly detailed explanation (a several-page book on the subject might do better at this, but that will be a long read, and this one is long enough as it is), but I shall give you a list of when we use them and some examples of how they are being used.

 So I suggest you get a nice, comfortable chair and prepare to absorb as much as you can from all of this.

Click below for:

Present perfect and present perfect continuous

Past perfect and past perfect continuous

Future perfect and future perfect continuous

VOCABULARY/GLOSSARY for all the pages in this feature 

tense – this is the form of a verb which shows us whether you are referring to past, present, or future time. What tense do you use if you want to describe things that happened in the past?

to absorb – here, to learn and understand something. I suggest we leave him alone for a few minutes to give him time to absorb the bad news.

past participle – the third form of the verb. Drive is the first form or base form, drove is the past form and is used for the past simple, and driven is the third form, or past participle.

past tense – used to describe verb forms for actions that have now finished. Also known as the past simple. It was as though Julie, in a hospital bed, was already dead: they were speaking of her in the past tense.

to realise/realize – to become aware or understand that something is true. People don't realize how serious COVID-19 has actually been.

as a consequence – if one thing happens and then another thing happens in consequence or as a consequence, the second thing happens as a result of the first. Many people are losing their jobs as a consequence of COVID-19.

to break the law/to have broken the law – to deliberately do things that do not follow a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. No excuses – you broke the law, you go to jail.

to make redundant/to have made redundant – when your employer tells you to leave because your job is no longer necessary or because your employer cannot afford to keep paying you. Thanks to the economic crisis, a lot of companies are making people redundant.

stative (state) verbs – these are verbs that usually refer to a state or condition which is quite static (no movement) or unchanging. They are verbs that refer to emotion (I love her!), knowledge (He knows the answer), possession (She owns a flat in the city centre), communication (I won’t tell anybody!), or the senses (I smell fish). They are not normally used in the continuous, but when they are the meaning is often different: I see the shop (I looked for the shop and now I can see this); I‘m seeing Julie tonight (I have an appointment or date with Julie in the evening).

subtle differences – changes in something that are not immediately obvious or noticeable. There’s been some subtle differences to their house since I last saw it a year ago; for example, I didn’t realise that they’d changed the kitchen floor tiles.

object – a noun or pronoun that finishes the structure of a word or phrase that started with a verb or preposition, and is usually the attention of the subject, e.g., I like Fred (Fred is the object of what you – the subject of the sentence – like). The company gave its employees a pay rise (the employees are the object of the company’s – the subject – attention).

apron – a piece of clothing that you put on over the front of your normal clothes and tie round your waist, especially when you are cooking, in order to prevent your clothes from getting dirty. You need to put on an apron before you can start making a cake.

done and dusted – an idiomatic phrase to describe a task or activity that is completed, along with everything else connected with it, such as the paperwork, to the point that you no longer have to think or worry about it. I’ll be glad when this job is done and dusted – it’s now six weeks behind schedule!

clumsy – here, not easy to say, or what seems to be a problematic sentence, when spoken. Some sentences in English can sound clumsy if the correct word order isn’t used.

to be prescriptive – here, to tell people what they should do with the English language, rather than simply giving suggestions or describing what is done. Grammar pedants are very prescriptive.

Perfect tenses home        Present perfect and present perfect continuous

Past perfect and past perfect continuous

Future perfect and future perfect continuous

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