No, I don’t mean how to write perfectly. I’ve never managed that, and I don’t know anyone who has. But English has perfect and progressive tenses of verbs. I can show you what they are, how to write them, and how to use them.
Perfect and progressive tenses are compound tenses. That is, they use an auxiliary or helping verb and a participle.
English has a lot of auxiliaries. We can get some of them out of the way easily.
- “Do” is an auxiliary verb used in negatives (You do not write carefully) or emphatically (Yes, I do write carefully.)
- Modal auxiliaries (such as can, could, may, might, must, should, would) alter a verb’s meaning. They express such differences of meaning as ability, permission, or necessity.
- “Will” is considered an auxiliary, but it makes up for the fact that English has no true future tense.
All of these auxiliaries can be followed by an infinitive. But I just used one to modify a compound verb, passive voice in this case, and not an infinitive, didn’t I? But these auxiliaries do not create tenses.
Perfect and progressive tenses can express past, present, and future. They have different auxiliaries: to have and to be. You must use them with participles and not infinitives.
Is it possible to combine the two auxiliaries? Yes. It makes the perfect progressive tenses.
The perfect tenses of verbs
We form perfect tenses with a form of “have” plus a past participle. That’s the one that, in regular verbs, ends in -d or -ed: perfected, for example, or named, cleaned, walked, adjudicated, etc. Of course, English has more than its share of irregular past participles: taught, written, done, known, sung, etc.
Perfect means completed. All the perfect tenses imply something in the past. But don’t think of them as past tense. Past tense is a simple tense without an auxiliary. Maybe if grammarians said “completed tenses” instead of “perfect tenses,” ordinary people would find them less confusing.
In fact, present perfect tense is not only possible but the most common one.
“Have,” the auxiliary, has three basic tenses, like any other verb: present (have), past (had), and future (will have). The participle doesn’t change. So present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect are determined by the tense of “have.”
Present perfect can indicate something that started in the past and continues into the present.
- George has worked at the bank for five years.
- You have been late every day this week.
- I have never made a misteak in my life. (Oops)
It can also indicate something that happened at an unspecified time in the past. You use present perfect because, well, it describes a present truth. Right now, in the present, something that has already happened still matters somehow.
- Karen has recommended lots of great restaurants. (She may recommend more in the future, but I’m telling you now. If she tells you about a great restaurant, believe her.)
- You have walked that trail dozens of times.
- I have eaten already. (I was hungry before I ate, but not now.)
Perfect tenses can also be used in a negative sense: If I say I have never done it that way instead of I didn’t do it that way, it means that what I didn’t do in the past matters now for the sake of this present conversation. Maybe I’m resisting something new. Maybe I’m asking you for patience as I attempt something unfamiliar.
But notice: present perfect refers to an indefinite past. I can say I have eaten breakfast, implying sometime this morning. I can’t say I have eaten breakfast at 7:00. A specific time requires past tense: I ate breakfast at 7:00.
Past perfect, sometimes called pluperfect, says that some event was in the past at some other point in the past. The sentence can specify that latter time or leave it vague.
- By the time Fred came, Gloria had already packed three boxes.
- The traffic didn’t bother Diana because she had driven that route many times.
Sometimes a simple past and a past perfect can mean the same thing:
- Herb was raised by a single mother, because his father died before he was born.
- Herb was raised by a single mother, because his father had died before he was born.
Which is better in that case? The context might indicate a preference, or it may not. In that case, you choose.
Since perfect tenses imply something already completed, the idea of a future perfect may seem strange. It just means that at some point in the future, some event is already past.
It’s not used very often. After all, we can seldom be sure of the order of events in the future. But as I look at the clock, I can say with absolute certainty that before I write another word here, I will have finished two appointments.
The progressive tenses of verbs
I mentioned perfect progressive earlier, but before we look at it, we ought to become acquainted with the ordinary progressive tenses.
Progressive tenses use some form of “to be” with a present participle, the one that ends with -ing. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with irregular present participles.
The progressive tenses describe an action that is in progress at a particular time. That time can be now, some past time, or some future time.
I am sitting at my computer writing an article.
Some other languages I have studied don’t distinguish between a simple present and a present progressive. In English, “I write” means something I do in some fairly large present. If someone asks what I do all day, I say I write. It doesn’t mean any writing is in progress at the time. When I say I am writing, it’s happening as I speak.
If I say I wrote, it refers to a past action. I can specify the time in the past as much or as little as I want. I wrote some stuff yesterday. But I can also point to a particular book or article and say I wrote it. That’s just a claim of authorship without any indication of when I wrote it.
If I say I was writing, it refers to writing at some time in the past. It can refer to a very specific time. I was not writing while I was running my errands.
At some point in the future, I will be writing.
I said that future perfect isn’t used very often because it’s so hard to predict the order of events. But we use future progressive all the time. It doesn’t matter when the writing will happen in comparison with some other event.
Perfect progressive tenses
At the present time, if some action that was completed in the past is still ongoing, we describe it with present perfect progressive. That is, we use the perfect tense of “to be” and add the present participle of another verb.
I have been living in my present house for a long time. The condition of living here was completed as soon as I moved in. I’m still here.
On the other hand, I have moved several times in the past. So I can talk about something that happened when I was living somewhere else. I can specify a time relationship more precisely with past perfect progressive. I had been living in the Chicago area for several years before I bought my first house. (If I said I had lived . . . , it would describe the situation just as well. It just wouldn’t illustrate the verb tense.)
English has a future perfect progressive tense, but again, we don’t need it very often. It implies that some action is now in the future, but at some other time in the future, it will be completed. For example:
By the time this year’s high school students graduate, they will have been attending school for 12 years. They are attending school now. They have been in school now for however many years. But they haven’t graduated yet. Therefore, the condition for having been in school for 12 years has not yet been met.
When you speak, you probably use all these tenses without thinking about them. When you write, you need to think about what you’re doing and understand the different shades of meaning each verb tense implies.
After all, when you write, your reader probably can’t ask you to clarify. So by the time anyone reads what you write, you should have been thinking about how to express yourself as clearly as possible.