I've started to wonder recently if we could put together a canonical post that thoroughly explains perfect constructions; how they work, when to use them, etc. There are of course exceptions to everything, so the post would not answer all questions related to perfect constructions, but I think it could be useful. I've noticed a trend that questions about perfect constructions seem to come repeatedly from the same users. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself—the questions are fair and the users free to ask them—but it makes me think that we aren't getting the point across to them, and since this is such a commonly asked about topic, perhaps we should cover it in-depth in one easily-accessible resource.

So, thoughts? Is this doable? Is there too much to say to fit into a single post, or do we think we could do this? If we can, do we have any volunteers to write the answer? We would also need to agree upon the best way to phrase the question (I would then post it as a CW question on the main site, so that when questions that are entirely answered by the post are asked, they can be closed as duplicates). A starting point for the question text, if we decide to proceed with this:

[This is a canonical post on the usage of Perfect Constructions. It is Community Wiki and can be updated with further information and clarification at any time.]

What are Perfect Constructions?

When can I use them?

When should I not use them?

Important notes about this proposal:

  1. This does not mean we would immediately begin closing all questions about perfect constructions as a duplicate of this question. But this could be a good resource to point learners to; if they read this the first time they ask a question about perfect constructions, maybe it will answer all their questions and they won't need to ask more. If the question is extremely basic and clearly answered by this canonical answer, the community could decide to close it. Or if the OP, once shown a link to this question, decides their question has been answered, we could also close it then.

  2. The above question proposal is just a very rough outline. Please suggest improvements.

  3. If we agree to go forward with this, we really need a qualified writer to help us write the canonical answer; agreement with this proposal is useless if we don't have someone to do that! So please, if you're interested, volunteer to write something up for us. The post will be CW so others can of course edit and contribute later, but we really would need someone to write the bulk of the original post.

Okay, so, thoughts? Everyone please let me know what you think! :)


I've created a chat room specifically to discuss this Canonical Post moving forward. Anyone is welcome to come chat about ideas they have for this post. You can find the chat room here!

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    Wendi, are you sure that "perfect tenses" exist? Searching on the Internet I found that: 1) A verb can be "perfect" or "imperfect" in its aspect, being the tense never "perfect"; 2) There is a transatlantic difference in the usage of "perfect" and "imperfect" structure. So, what can we do? – user114 Jul 15 '13 at 21:27
  • @Carlo_R. I don't claim to be an expert on the matter; I'd have to think really hard to answer anyone's 'perfect tense' question beyond "This sounds right, this doesn't sound right." So perhaps this isn't possible; I don't know, I've just noticed the trend in questions. We shall have to see if anyone chimes in with the knowledge to write such a post (or who can confirm that it can't be done). Re: transatlantic differences, we can always make note of differences between BrE and AmE, just as we would in any post, I think. – WendiKidd Jul 15 '13 at 22:38
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    @Carlo_R. The preferred term now is perfect construction. Perfect is not used these days for aspect, in large part because so many European languages have "perfect" tenses which all behave differently; the technical terms when speaking of aspect are perfective and imperfective. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 15 '13 at 23:06
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    @StoneyB Thanks; I've updated the post to correct tense to construction. Do you think this is something we could manage? I must admit you were on my mental shortlist of users we'd need input from if we were to accomplish this :) – WendiKidd Jul 15 '13 at 23:12
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    I want to be involved, and (as I explain in a characteristically verbose Answer I'm in the middle of writing at this very moment--or at least the next very moment) I'm already involved! – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 15 '13 at 23:17
  • I think it's a great idea, and I vote we delegate the task of prototyping the thing to StoneyB, since he's better at it than most of us! – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 16 '13 at 20:55
  • Excellent proposal because explaining the differences between the present, past and continuous can get tedious. The actual time spent in replying to these type of questions can take up to an hour (well for me it does!) Give a brief succinct answer and you risk missing an important detail. Give a magnificently detailed thoughtful answer and you risk alienating users who want a simple "yes" or "no" answer. So a database would be very helpful reference guide indeed. – Mari-Lou A Jul 17 '13 at 17:22
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    @Mari-LouA Exactly. I've occasionally done a SHORT ANSWER/LONG ANSWER thing; it would be nice to turn that into SHORT ANSWER/NOT QUITE SO SHORT ANSWER/GO [HERE] FOR A STUPEFYINGLY LONG ANSWER. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 17 '13 at 18:27
  • @StoneyB That's a wonderful idea; "Here's a short primer to give you an overview. Here's a longer answer that goes more in-depth and answers further questions. Click [here] when you're ready to learn EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW (OR DIDN'T). ;) That sounds great because it has a suitable answer for how much time a user might have available, and doesn't immediately hit them with an intimidating Wall of Text; they can ease their way in by reading each of the answers in succession, hopefully understanding the subject a bit better each time. – WendiKidd Jul 18 '13 at 12:43
  • Ive seen the canonical answer, and I read it and learned something from it. I can't recall what at the moment. But I have not seen any question in the last three or four months actually link to it. Also, I doubt that many users are aware it exists. In the same line of thinking, we sure could use a canonical post about a lot of things. Especially articles (a, the, zero-, some). How many times a day, a week do we get "Should I use an a or a the or nothing here?" Or: "why is the and not a used here?" Ad infinitum. – user6951 Feb 12 '15 at 13:56

As a matter of fact, precisely this subject (a Very Large subject) has been occupying a good deal of my time over the past week. You may in fact have noticed that whole slew of old questions have recently shown up on the Active QQ page, because I've been going through methodically dredging up all the questions which dealt with perfect constructions (and, separately, a modal and semi-modal verbs and b other gnarly matters involving the TAM trinity [tense/aspect/modality]), and have been retagging as I go.

My thought was to raise the matter in terms very like what you have posted here and to invite suggestions about how it might best be accomplished: whether as a CW Question, or as a Meta Question or possibly as one or more tag-wiki posts.

I had two related concerns:

  1. The first is one you raise: How will this Canonical Post interact with new questions? It will relieve us of the necessity of retelling the same long, complicated story every time a question respecting perfect constructions comes up; but we need to be careful that we do not make that an excuse for rushing to close every question that arises. I fear that those of us who have been active on ELU have imported from our Old World some attitudes that are not always appropriate in the New. Specifically, we tend to think that an Answer is an Answer is an Answer, and overlook the irreducible uniqueness of every question that is asked.

    So I feel that what the Canonical Post should do is provide the essential formal categories and rules which are part of the background to every question. This will leave us free to post brief answers directly responsive to the specifics of OPs' questions, and refer them for terminological explanation and theoretical detail to the CP.

  2. The second is the matter of review. This is something that has bothered me since we first started getting new visitors from outside the Inner Circle of Original Followers. I am very grateful for the many up- and down-votes and positive and negative comments I get from the ICOF, and they assure me that (eventually) I get the answer right; but what I really want is more feedback from the anonymous horde of users we're struggling towards accumulating. I want to know that I'm not just right but intelligibly right. So I'd like to see some sort of mechanism for promoting and soliciting commentary from the Learners. But I have no clear idea what that mechanism might be, beyond possibly a signature phrase in the Title: FOR LEARNERS: Help Us Get It Right, or something of the sort.

So I'm on board already, and I'm eager to participate in whatever manner the Community judges most appropriate.

P.S. With respect to "questions about perfect tenses seem to come repeatedly from the same users" - I can report with some authority that what we get is six or eight questions from one new user, digging deeper and deeper into the subject as their understanding grows; and then ten days later six or eight questions from another new user, digging deeper &c; and then ten days after that six or eight questions from yet another new user ... It would be funny, except that I can't keep track of my answers and keep assuming I've already informed User C of Important Fact VII when in fact I haven't mentioned that since User A.

P.P.S. The single most important thing to be included is FumbleFingers' Perfect Truism.

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    ♥ - Thanks for the mention! I strongly endorse both your numbered points; we should be careful not to close questions which aren't specifically covered by any "canonical" answer, and we really need more feedback from learners to tell us if we're presenting information in the most accessible fashion. When you already know something, it's easy enough to judge whether an answer is "correct" or not, but it's not always obvious if the way it's presented will work for people who don't already know what's being conveyed. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 16 '13 at 21:06
  • Excellent, I'm so glad you're on board! This is a topic that seems to trip up quite a few learners, so I think having an in-depth reference will be a good tool for them. Regarding your first point, I absolutely agree; I don't want to use this post as a means to "Close All The Things" ;) I simply wanted the option to be available in the case that a question that is a simple, exact duplicate is posted. Regarding your second point, you're definitely raising a valid concern there. We can tell from upvotes when many users find the answer useful, but we have no real way to gauge (continued) – WendiKidd Jul 17 '13 at 14:28
  • when a post is clearly useful to learners or not. Honestly I can't think of a way to do that off the top of my head, aside from making a meta post encouraging comments when answers could use clarification (and hoping said meta post gets noticed!) Honestly I think your second point would make a good meta post all on its own; it would be good to see if people can come up with any ideas on how to accomplish this. If we can come up with a site feature that would encourage this (though I don't know what it would be), we can even request it once we graduate. – WendiKidd Jul 17 '13 at 14:31
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    @WendiKidd Don't I remember that when we first went public there was a banner across the top that urged people to participate on Meta? Maybe that could be revived to promote practically anything: "Be sure to upvote useful Questions and Answers!" "Say Thank You by Accepting the Answer" "If you don't understand an Answer, ask for clarification in the Comments" – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 17 '13 at 18:24
  • @StoneyB That is a brilliant idea. It could also be tailored to the newness of the user; ie. if they've already accepted an answer or two, it doesn't need to show the "accept an answer" one... etc. And of course your final example would be the most important one. I like that, a lot. If you make a feature-request post out of this I'll pop it into the Community Team's view to get their thoughts :) – WendiKidd Jul 18 '13 at 12:40
  • @WendiKidd I'll write that post as soon as work allows. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 18 '13 at 12:48
  • @WendiKidd It's up, and immediately got a plonking response from waiwai. ... Another thought: I would cheerfully put a swingeing bounty up if there were some mechanism for assuring that anybody who responds gets something. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 18 '13 at 23:39
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    @StoneyB Well, it seems like this meta post has gotten all the attention it's going to ;) And the consensus seems to be that we'd love to have you write something like this, if you're still interested. I don't think we hashed out exactly what the question itself should say, but we can sort that out as things move forward. I've just created a chat room specifically to further discuss this post, which anyone may come and offer ideas in. Room can be found here. – WendiKidd Jul 29 '13 at 4:10
  • I deprecate @FumbleFingers truism, at least for ELL, because learners aren't going to know when it applies. – user6951 Feb 12 '15 at 13:52
  • @δοῦλος I recommend it primarily as a corrective. The misunderstanding I've encountered most frequently among our questioners on this topic is their impression that a perfect construction (past or present) is required by specific anterior:current temporal relationships in a discourse, which of course is not the case: many such relationships are quite adequately expressed with 'simple past' forms. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 12 '15 at 17:54

My advice (don't use Past Perfect unless you really have to) has already been linked to here, and I've posted links to it myself in various answers and comments on ELL.main.

I think that a single canonical question (and single canonical answer?) covering all aspects of Perfect Constructions might be a bit ambitious (it could get confusingly long, too). Bearing in mind my dictum above, I suggest one really useful page that we could realistically provide would answer the question...

When do I have to use Past Perfect? (specifically not: when can I use it?)

Perhaps someone will be prompted to cut & paste the above line into a question on main. I certainly wouldn't downvote as Too Broad, nor would I object if they simply pasted/posted the same words as both the title and the question text. If nobody does, but this question gets at least 10 upvotes, I'll do it myself.

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  • Perhaps join us here in the chat room we've set up to discuss this? You make a good point, but having two separate posts which hope to teach users the same thing is a waste of effort if the writers of said posts don't talk to each other first (you don't want to duplicate each other's work). So I think you have a point, but maybe we can discuss it further there so you and Stoney aren't doing the same thing? – WendiKidd Jul 30 '13 at 22:40
  • I've posted a response in the chatroom to which Wendi links – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 31 '13 at 14:06

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