Common mistakes with the Present Perfect tense

The Present Perfect tense is made up of have/has and the past participle of a verb:

He has eaten all the chocolates.
I have included your amendments in the draft agreement.

It is perhaps the most difficult of all verb tenses in English. This is partly because many other languages don’t have an equivalent, so speakers of those languages find it difficult to understand the concept.

In this post I will not try to explain what the Present Perfect tense means – instead I will show you how to avoid some of the most common mistakes.

 

WRONG
We have finally received the requested documents on Monday.
We have submitted the information before we filed the application.
I have phoned him yesterday.
We have not completed the report last week.
The transaction has not been finalised by 31 December 2017.
We have analysed the contracts during the first due diligence process.
This issue has been discussed prior to executing the transaction.

All the above examples are mistakes because the Present Perfect cannot be used with expressions of finished time (i.e. specified times in the past – underlined in the above examples).

An expression of finished time is any word or phrase that tells you when something happened or did not happen. If an expression of finished time describes when an action happened (or did not happen) you should use the Past Simple:

RIGHT
We finally received the requested documents on Monday.
We submitted the information before we filed the application.
I phoned him yesterday.
We did not complete the report last week.
The transaction was not finalised by 31 December 2017.
We analysed the contracts during the first due diligence process.
This issue was discussed prior to executing the transaction.

 

The Present Perfect often goes with adverbs of indefinite time: 

already
as yet
before
ever
just
never
recently 
since
so far
still
to date
until now
yet

We’ve already met a couple of times.
So far the regulator has not indicated that this type of activity is contrary to the provisions on insurance activity.
We still have not received payment of the invoice.
Have you ever seen anything like this before?
Mr Smith has just arrived.
We have recently received a new instruction from this client.
We have not heard from the tax authority yet.

 

The Present Perfect may be used for expressing an action that continues up to the present time. Compare the following:

I have worked at the company for three years.
(And I work there now.)

I worked at the company for three years.
(I no longer work there.)

WRONG
I am working at the company for three years.

Our lawyers have represented many high profile clients.
(And continue to do so.)
Adam is a highly experienced investigator who has worked on numerous cases of this type.
(And continues to do so.)

This form is useful in marketing material and CVs.

 

The Present Perfect is used in sentences that contain the following constructions:

this is the first time…
it is the second best…
it is the worst…
this is the only time…
etc.

This is the second time that we have asked you to send us the documents.
This is the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in.
This is the heaviest suitcase I have ever carried.

 

In time clauses with after, until, when, as soon as, once, we often use the Present Perfect to refer to future events:

As soon as we have heard the verdict from the court we will contact you.
I won’t contact the client until I’ve received your instructions.
I’ll give you further details when I’ve discussed the situation with John.
Once I have read all the documentation I assume the matter will be clear.

In US English, however, it is more common to use the Present Simple in the same kind of sentence:

As soon as we hear the verdict from the court we will contact you.
I will not contact the client until I receive your instructions.

WRONG
As soon as we will hear the verdict from the court we will contact you.
I won’t contact the client until I will receive your instructions.

 

If we talk about something that happened before something else happened, we do NOT use the Present Perfect:

WRONG
During the inspection it was found that the provision for an average 5-day working week has been violated.

RIGHT
During the inspection it was found that the provision for an average 5-day working week had been violated.

“had been violated” is in the Past Perfect tense – i.e. the inspection is in the past and the violation happened before the inspection.

WRONG
The Company has admitted in the course of the proceedings that the boundaries of the tunnel have been measured incorrectly.

RIGHT
The Company has admitted in the course of the proceedings that the boundaries of the tunnel were measured incorrectly.

“were measured” is in the Past Simple tense ­– i.e. the proceedings are ongoing (we know this because “has admitted” is the Present Perfect, which expresses action that continues up to the present time) and the incorrect measurements were made before the proceedings.

 

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6 Responses to Common mistakes with the Present Perfect tense

  1. Gean says:

    Great post, thanks a lot! I have one question, how about: “The Company has admitted in the course of the proceedings that the boundaries of the tunnel HAD BEEN measured incorrectly.” Is it wrong or correct but has different meaning?

    • By itself I think your sentence is technically incorrect – although that might go unnoticed. But it really depends on context. “Has admitted” implies the proceedings are ongoing – i.e. still happening now. “Had been measured” implies something else relevant happened between the measuring and now. That something else could have been described in a previous sentence (and would probably be described in the past simple or continuous). In that case “had been measured” could be correct.

  2. Bijay says:

    Copied for your example: We submitted the information before we filed the application.
    If there are two sentences in past then one sentences (which had done before ) must be in Past perfect tense. If so, the sentence would be”We had submitted the information before we filed the application.” Am I right?

    • “We submitted the information before we filed the application” is correct as it is. “Before we filed the application” is simply an expression of finished time. The sentence is in chronological order.
      Look again at this example: “During the inspection it was found that the provision for an average 5-day working week had been violated.”
      The inspection is in the past and we’re talking about something that was discovered during the inspection. The violation that was discovered happened before the inspection. Also, the sentence is not chronological. So in this case the Past Perfect is used.

  3. Michael Khan says:

    Thank you, the post is very informative. You mentioned that “In time clauses with after, until, when, as soon as, once, we often use the Present Perfect to refer to future events”, but what about time clauses with “by that time”? For example, would “If you’ve got sick of working by that time, you can take a vacation” be a correct sentence?

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