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The Formation and Use of the Perfect Aspect in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 12/2/2013

The perfect aspect is a verb form that expresses the consequences resulting from a previous action or state. This article explains the formation and use of the perfect aspect of verbs in both the present tense and the past tense in English.

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    Forming the Perfect Aspect

    All forms of the perfect aspect in English include some form of the verb have followed by a past participle. Perfect aspect verb phrases in the passive voice also include been, the past participle of be, between the have and the past participle. The following verb chart outlines the verb phrase patterns for the perfect aspect:

    Perfect Aspect 

    For example:

    • The child has eaten the cookie. (active present perfect)
    • The child had eaten the cookie. (active past perfect)
    • The children have eaten the cookies. (active present perfect)
    • The children had eaten the cookies. (active past perfect)
    • The cookie has been eaten by the child. (passive present perfect)
    • The cookie had been eaten by the child. (passive past perfect)
    • The cookies have been eaten by the children. (passive present perfect)
    • The cookies had been eaten by the children. (passive past perfect)

    Note that the simple present tense of the verb to have is have for all forms but the third person singular, which is has. The simple past tense of the verb to have is had for all persons and numbers. For a list of some irregular past participles in English, please download the printable supplement English Irregular Verbs: Simple Past Tense and Past Participles.

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    Using the Present Perfect Aspect

    The perfect present aspect expresses and emphasizes the consequences resulting from a previous action or state. The previous action or state began in the past and continued up to the present. Take for example the following two sentences:

    1. Her mother wrote novels for years. (simple past)
    2. Her mother has written novels for years. (present perfect)

    The first sentence Her mother wrote novels for years expresses an action that occurred in the past; her mother wrote novels in the past but presumably no longer writes. The second sentence Her mother has written novels for years expresses an action that began in the past but continues up to the present; her mother wrote novels in the past and presumably is continuing to write novels in the present.

    The perfect present aspect is most often used in sentences that express experiences, accomplishments, changes over time, uncompleted actions with expected ends, continuous actions with starting points in the past, past actions with present results, and multiple actions at different times. For example:

    • She has lived in France and England. (experience)
    • Our library has won an award every year. (accomplishment)
    • My son has grown three inches this year. (change over time)
    • I have not finished my homework yet. (uncompleted action with expected end)
    • That man has been a farmer for over sixty years. (continuous actions with past starting point)
    • My neighbor has broken his leg. (past action with present result)
    • He has discussed his problem with numerous specialists. (multiple actions)

    Present perfect sentences cannot contain adverbials that express specific times in the past such as yesterday, last month, a year ago, as a child, at that moment, and one day. Present perfect sentences can contain adverbials that express unspecific times in the past or present times such as today, now, just, for years, ever, never, before, and many times. For example:

    • My puppy drank all the milk yesterday. (correct)
    • *My puppy has drunk all the milk yesterday. (incorrect)
    • My puppy drank all the milk today. (correct)
    • My puppy has drunk all the milk today. (correct)
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    Using the Past Perfect Aspect

    The perfect past aspect also expresses and emphasizes the consequences resulting from a previous action or state. The previous action or state began in the past and continued until another previous action or state. In other words, the past perfect aspect expresses an action or state in the past that occurred before another action or state in the past. Take for example the following two sentences:

    1. The man read the contract before signing it. (simple past)
    2. The man had read the contract before signing it. (past perfect)

    The first sentence The man read the contract before signing it expresses two separate events: the man reading the contract and the man signing the contract. The reading of the contract happened before the signing of the contract, but the reading did not necessary immediately precede the signing. The second sentence The man had read the contract before signing it also expresses the two events of reading and signing a contract. However, the use of the past perfect in the second sentence implies that the reading of the contract led up to the signing of it.

    The perfect past aspect is most often used in sentences that express a completed action that occurred before another action in the past and in sentences that express actions that began in the past and continued up until other actions in the past. For example:

    • I had backed up all my files before my computer crashed.
    • The train had already left when she arrived at the station.
    • My husband had eaten all the eggs.
    • Although she had loved the book, she absolutely hated the movie.

    Unlike present perfect sentences, past perfect sentences can, and quite often do, contain adverbials that express specific times. In fact, the past perfect often occurs in sentences that contain adverbial clauses. For example:

    • The woman had dyed her hair last year.
    • My children had drunk all the milk before the power went off.
    • She had broken her leg as a child.
    • My husband had admitted to eating all the eggs after I told him I wanted omelets.
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    For information on other verb forms in English, please read the article The English Verb System for ESL Students.