Simple Past, Present Perfect and Past Perfect Tenses

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Dec 22, 2010 14:12
There are Japanese translations in the corrections fields. Please feel welcome to add other Japanese translations if you want to.

A friend recently suggested that I write an entry for Japanese speakers about the (simple) past, present perfect and past perfect tenses, and how they are used in English. I said that if I wrote it in my 下手な日本語, it might be more confusing than helpful. She was tactful in responding, but agreed that it might be better for me to write it in English. ^^ Perhaps one of you will be willing to write a translation into Japanese for other Japanese speakers who are not as comfortable reading English as you are. If this entry turns out to be useful, perhaps I will write another one on progressive tenses and passive mood forms as well.

What makes the perfect tenses difficult for Japanese speakers is that they each have a couple of different uses, which probably correspond to different expressions in Japanese. I will be interested to see the translations of some of the example sentences I give.

Easy things first: how to form the present perfect and past perfect tenses.
The present perfect tense consists of "have" or "has" followed by the past participle of the verb you are using. Use "have" if the subject of the verb would be described by one of the pronouns I, you, we or they. Use "has" if the subject would be described by one of the pronouns he, she or it.
The past perfect tense consists of "had" followed by the past participle of the verb you are using.

Verb: go (he/she/it goes)
(Simple) past: went
Past participle: gone
Present perfect: I/you/we/they have gone, he/she/it has gone
Past perfect: had gone (same for all pronouns)

Verb: sing (he/she/it sings)
(Simple) past: sang
Past participle: sung
Present perfect: I/you/we/they have sung, he/she/it has sung
Past perfect: had sung (same for all pronouns)

Verb: be (I am, you/we/they are, he/she/it is)
(Simple) past: I/he/she/it was, you/we/they were
Past participle: been
Present perfect: I/you/we/they have been, he/she/it has been
Past perfect: had been (same for all pronouns)

Verb: do (he/she/it does)
(Simple) past: did
Past participle: done
Present perfect: I/you/we/they have done, he/she/it has done
Past perfect: had done (same for all pronouns)

The past, or simple past, is usually used to describe a single action which was completed (finished) at a specific time in the past. The emphasis is on the fact that the action was completed.

I ate breakfast at 9:00 this morning.
I went to England last summer.
I worked hard all day. (This suggests that I am no longer working now. If I am still working hard now, I would say "I have been working hard all day.")

The specific time when the action was completed is not always mentioned in the sentence, but in most cases when a speaker uses the simple past tense, he or she could answer the question "When did that happen?" if asked.

When the simple past is used to describe a state rather than an action, there is a strong suggestion that the state no longer exists.

The room was hot. (This suggests either that the room is not hot now, or I am no longer in the room, so I am not feeling the heat in the room any more.)
My mother was sick. (This suggests that she is now well again.)
I was confused. (This suggests that now I understand.)

The simple past can be used to describe an action completed several times in the past, but usually the number of times and/or the period of time during which the actions occurred is specified:

I missed my bus in the morning twice last week.
We called his name over and over again until he responded. ("Until he responded" specifies the end of the period during which the action was repeated.)
He failed the entrance examination three times.

According to linguists, the emphasis of perfect tenses (which they say should be called aspects) is on the effect that the action or actions has/have on the present (in the case of the present perfect) or on a specified moment in the past (in the case of the past perfect). This may be helpful after you see some situations in which the perfect tenses are used, but I don't think it is a helpful description by itself.

Here are some of the situations in which the present perfect tense is used:

(1) A single action or a state which started at a time in the past and continues up to the present moment (the moment when the sentence is said)

(2) A single action which was completed a very short time ago (a very short time before the sentence is said)

(3) A repeated or habitual action in the past. Usually no specific time for the occurrences of the action is given, and the action is expected to occur again in the future, perhaps many times again.

This entry has already become very long, and it's after midnight here, so I think I will stop for now. I will add sentence examples and the corresponding explanation for the past perfect tense the next time I write. After that, I should probably start a new entry before contrasting the three tenses. I will publish this now so that people can start reading it.