Perfect Tense

Perfect tense consists of have/had/has plus a verb. There are two types of perfect tense:

  • The past perfect had plus a verb — distinguishes between the past and the more distant past, as in the first example below.
  • The present perfecthave or has plus a verb — describes a past action but indicates that this action may continue, as in the second example below:
When Bobby got sick, he had already eaten a lot of jelly beans.

Bobby has eaten a lot of jelly beans already. I think he might get sick.

In the first example, Bobby got sick in the past, but his eating occurred even further in the past. The past perfect ("he had eaten") is therefore appropriate. In the second example, some of Bobby's eating is over, but he could conceivably keep eating. This possibility is left open by the present perfect ("Bobby has eaten").

A shift between regular and perfect tenses often indicates a contrast between two ideas or situations. Take these examples:

In the first example, the tense shift sharpens the distinction between the anti-dissident opinions of the 1920s ("The Supreme Court had ruled... ") and the pro-dissident opinions that came thirty years later ("in the 1950s it took a more favorable view"). In the second example, the present perfect in the first clause ("has slowly narrowed") implies that the Court has restricted the scope of Warren-era rulings until recent times, and that it could have continued to do so. The second half of the sentence, however, tells us that it has not.

The Supreme Court had ruled against dissenters in the 1920s, but in the 1950s it took a more favorable view.

The Supreme Court has slowly narrowed the scope of the Warren-era rulings, but its latest rulings indicate a reversal of that trend.
Verb Tense

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