The clear and present danger to a perfectly good tense
The Monitor's language columnist defends the usefulness of the present perfect tense to refer to actions that are complete, but still relevant.
The present perfect tense is under threat.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A linguist I was interviewing on some other subject alerted me to this some years ago. It's just disappearing, he said. People are saying things like, "I just saw him," instead of "I've just seen him."
I didn't make much of it at the time, but in the years since, I've come to see his point – and to appreciate the usefulness of the present perfect.
This tense describes actions that are complete but still relevant, still part of the "now." As the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, says on its helpful grammar website, "Present perfect is used when the time period has not finished."
Remember the old joke: A visiting tourist asks a colorful local, "Have you lived here your whole life?" and he responds, "Not yet." The present perfect is what makes it work.
To go back to the example I remember from school, "Michael has parked the car." The implication is, "And now we're here in the restaurant enjoying our dinner," or whatever. The action is "past" in that it's already happened, but no time element is necessary. The simple past tense, on the other hand, cries out – to my ear, at least – for a time element.
Here's another scenario: A woman says to her friend, "We've gone out three or four times." The implication there is that "he" could call again at any minute – or "she" may never hear from him again.
Compare: "We went out three or four times." In that example, the relationship is history, in her mind at least. She speaks of him in the past tense.
In ordinary conversation, the difference between simple past and present perfect – between "I've bought a new suit" and "I bought a new suit" – just about disappears. But in writing, judicious use of the present perfect helps keep events in the "now."
For a journalist, it allows for a helpful summation of the story-so-far, and prepares the way for a statement of what might happen next, or an analysis of what it all means. "A, B, and C have happened, and so X, Y, and Z may be next." The present perfect can anchor a piece appropriately while allowing the writer to play down time elements ("last week") that may make the story look less fresh.
The Romans had a term for this, in medias res, "in the middle of the thing." Wordsmith Anu Garg recently featured this term in his "Word a Day." He traced the concept to the poet Horace, who "advises that an epic poem ought to begin in the middle of the action rather than at the beginning. The story is then told by flashbacks."
Another way people use the present perfect strategically is to spiff up their credentials, on a book-jacket blurb, for instance: "Her writing has appeared in several national publications, among them...."
The most poignant use of the present perfect I can remember, though, came in a brief exchange with a stranger a few years ago. I had come home from a trip and found my cupboard bare, and so I walked over to my neighborhood white-tablecloth restaurant for dinner. Because it was rather late on a weeknight, by the end of my meal I was sharing the dining room with only one other party, a table of eight or so older women lingering in deep, heartfelt conversation.
I eventually found out that they had just come from a memorial service for a friend. As one of them came over to explain to me as they left, "One of us has just died." She wasn't in denial about her friend's passing. But she wasn't quite ready to let go either.
And so to express herself, she chose a tense that was just perfect.