By Geraldine Woods

The perfect tenses tack has, have, or had onto a verb. Each perfect tense — past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect — also has a progressive form, which includes an -ing verb. The difference between plain perfect tense and progressive perfect is subtle. The progressive perfect is a bit more immediate than the plain form and refers to something that’s ongoing or takes place over a span of time. In many sentences the plain and progressive forms may be interchanged. Here’s when to use the perfect tenses:

  • Past perfect places one event in the past before another event in the past. The verb in Mike had dumped his dirty laundry in his mother’s basement long before she decided to change the front-door lock is had dumped, which is in past perfect tense. In the sentence Christy, Mike’s mother, had been threatening a laundry strike for years, but the beginning of mud-wrestling season pushed her to the breaking point, had been threatening is a verb in past perfect progressive tense.
  • Present perfect links the past and the present by describing an action or state of being that began in the past and is still going on. In the sentence Despite numerous reports of sightings around the world, Kristin has stayed close to home, the verb has stayed is in present perfect tense. In Kristin has been living within two miles of the Scottish border for the last decade, has been living is a verb in present perfect progressive tense.
  • Future perfect implies a deadline sometime in the future. In the sentence Before sundown, David will have toasted several dozen loaves of bread, will have toasted is in future perfect tense. The verb in By the time you turn on the television, Eye on Cooking will have been covering the toasting session for two hours, with six more to go, is will have been covering, which is in future perfect progressive tense.

Practice questions

Practice, especially with these verbs, makes perfect. (Perfect tense, get it?) The verb you’re working on appears as an infinitive (the basic, no-tense form) at the end of the sentence. Change it into the correct tense and fill in the blank.

  1. After today’s skating trip ends, David __________________ a total of 1,232 hours for his friend and __________________ countless outdated magazines in the emergency room family area. (to wait, to read)
  2. After Mike __________________ that his brother’s wisest course of action was to “butt out,” Tim simply ignored him. (to declare)

Answers to practice questions

  1. will have waited, will have read. The deadline in the sentence (the end of today’s trip) is your clue for future perfect tense.
  2. had declared. The after at the beginning of the sentence is your clue that one action occurs before another. Because both are in the past, you need past perfect tense for the earlier action.