The Perfect Aspect: Replacing confusion with comfort

Do we need the perfect aspect in communication? It seems like we have quite a number of ways to avoid it.

I’ve discussed the challenges in understanding aspect in an earlier post. (Click to view 2017 post.) One thing that confuses students is the frequent use of the simple past instead of the present perfect when we refer to a recent past action. They just finished vs. they’ve just finished. In fact, American English speakers also find the simple past acceptable in  questions about general past experiences: Did you ever see that movie with Tom Hanks when his plane goes down and he spends a few years on a deserted island? The question sounds completely natural to my ears. Using have you ever seen…? makes little or no change in meaning for me.

We love the simple past so much for its versatility that we also prefer it to the past perfect sometimes. If the sequence of events is clear with time words like after and before, why tax our brains will auxiliary verbs and participles? He never saw one before in a clear context is synonymous with he had never seen one before: Tarzan never saw a woman before. He was dumbfounded by Jane’s beauty. Is it clear enough? For  most audiences, yes.

Then there’s the future perfect, a rather clunky structure, to be honest. We sometimes find alternative verb forms to replace the bulkier one. It’ll be five years in March, and I still haven’t gotten a raise. In that statement, one perfect form seems to be enough. Should the speaker really say, “It will have been five years”?

I’m not going to lead a rebellion against the perfect forms. Truthfully, I not only feel that there’s a place for them, but I do use them. I know others do as well. But we need to acknowledge the alternatives we commonly use. Studying variations benefits upper level students by giving them the chance to identify structures synonymous in meaning. In our ESL classrooms, we give a safe place to question and experiment with language.

If you’d like to invite your students to do just that, please see my Perfect aspect_advanced grammar_handout.

As mentioned, there are times when the perfect aspect does its job very well for us and clarifies our meaning. If you have high intermediate students, see previous posts that create natural contexts for the perfect aspect.
Past perfect and past perfect progressive. Handout targeting form. (2016)
Past perfect and past perfect progressive. Handout targeting meaning. (2012)
Future perfect and future perfect progressive. Handout targeting form and meaning. 2016)
Future progressive and future perfect. Handout targeting meaning and use. (2013)

Featured photo by Greg Montani. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s