20/10/2016 Kamerin

Perfect Aspect (Part 1)

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Understanding the Perfect Aspect in English Grammar

They say that nobody’s perfect and that is true, especially when it comes to using English (even English teachers make mistakes!).  However, there is an aspect of English grammar that is perfect, the Perfect Aspect.  Though it may be perfect, it most definitely is not easy to understand.

In English we use a combination of verb tenses to express when an action or event takes place and whether it is a completed action or still ongoing.  Before we explore the function of the Perfect Aspect, let’s first review the function of the 6 basic tenses.


We use this tense to express things that happen at the precise moment, routinely or for things that are true all the time, not just in the present moment (facts).

Ex: I eat cereal for breakfast.

  • I eat cereal for breakfast everyday. (routine)
  • Ronaldo scores another goal for Barcelona! (at that moment)
  • The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. (fact)


An action that is in progress at the present moment. (progressive)

It has not been completed yet so it will continue until an unspecified time. (continuous)

Ex: I am eating cereal for breakfast. 

  • I am eating cereal now. I have not finished eating breakfast yet.


An action or event that happened before the time of speaking and is completed.

Ex: I did my homework at 8 o’clock last night.

  • I finished my homework last night.


An action that was in progress at a certain point in the past. (progressive)

An action that continued to happen beyond a certain point of time in the past. (continuous)

Ex: I was doing my homework at 8 o’clock last night.

  • At 8 o’clock last night I was in the process of doing my homework.  I finished it after 8 o’clock.


An action that will happen and be completed at a certain time in the future.

Ex: I will clean my car tomorrow morning.

  • I intend on cleaning my car at some point tomorrow morning.


An action that will be happening at a certain time in the future. (progressive)

An action that will be happening and will continue beyond a certain time in the future. (continuous)

Ex: I will be cleaning my car tomorrow morning.

  • At some point tomorrow morning, I will be in the process of cleaning my car.

The Perfect Aspect of these tenses are far less easy to understand.  Why? Well, because the Perfect Aspect is a very abstract and complex concept.  It can be difficult for English Learners as well as English teachers (much like the dreaded Passive Voice).  We can study (or teach) this grammar point over and over and over again, we can even use it on a daily basis, and still never really understand its function.  Then one day, the lightbulb finally will go off and BOOM! You finally get it!  I hope today is that day.

If you search in books or online for the meaning and use of the Perfect Aspect, you will likely come across some very long and complex explanations.  If you are anything like me, those explanations will probably confuse you more than you already are.  I’ve tried to simplify the concept as best as I could.  I hope this helps, even just a little.

What is the Perfect Aspect and what does it do?

Simply put, the Perfect Aspect is all about time and its relationship to the action/event we are referring to.  Yes, all the verb tenses are related to time, but they are limited to the past, present or future, individually.  The Perfect Aspect helps to make a connection between two points in time.  A past time/action/event and a second time/action/event that takes place after the first.

It can:

  • emphasize the length of time of an action/event or how much time passed after it began or finished
    • I’ve owned my house for 2 years. I hadn’t studied before I took the exam.
  • illustrate our experience
    • I will have worked for this company for 10 years next month.
  • demonstrate the sequence of events
    • I had been doing my homework for two hours when my computer crashed.
  • connect actions to their consequences
    • I can’t call you because I’ve lost my phone.

How can we use the Perfect Aspect?

Past, Present or Future:

Depending on the verb tense we can connect:

  • two events in the past (Past Perfect)
  • a past event to the present time (Present Perfect)
  • even an intended action at a future time with another time even further in the future (Future Perfect)

Simple or Progressive:

The Perfect Aspect  can be used in a Simple tense, implying that the action is/was/will be completed or in the Progressive (continuous) tense, meaning that the action is/was/will be ongoing.

Active or Passive:

Though most of what we say and write in English is usually in the Active Voice, we can also use the Perfect Aspect in the Passive Voice.



In Part 2 of this post, I will explain:

How we form the Perfect Aspect in all the verb tenses & How we use each of the Perfect tenses.


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About the Author

Kamerin American, honorary South African ;) Passionate about people, cultures and English.