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Present perfect : or Compound past ?

It is a modern custom in English grammar, to consider the verb form  have + past participle as a form of the present tense, and to call it the "present perfect" . Is this justified ?


The Present perfect : present tense or past tense ?

   There are traditions that are useful and worth keeping; and there are traditions that are kept up just because they are traditions. Considering the English verb form have + past participle, as in I have eaten, as a form of the present tense, belongs to the second category. It is the conventional contemporary way of categorising the English "present perfect " verb form, but in reality it is no more than an accepted modern convention.
    Before the second half of the twentieth century, the  "present perfect " was generally considered to be a past tense, and went under a variety of different names.

   There is little intrinsic reason, other a widely accepted tradition constantly reiterated by anglocentric grammarians, for classifying the Present perfect in English as a form of the present tense. Some linguists may have arguments to demonstrate that the Present perfect is a present tense; but there are other arguments, notably basic logic and comparison with similarly formed tenses in other European languages, that argue strongly in favour of its being classed as a form of the past tense, and indeed as a tense in its own right, as it was in the past.

  It seems to be the American grammarian William Chauncey Fowler (not to be confused with the British linguist Henry Fowler, the author of the classic Modern English Usage) who first popularized the expression "present perfect"  as the name used to describe the verb form have + past participle.   In his classic "English Grammar" , first published in 1851, William Fowler called this verb form the present perfect ; but he also classed it as a "tense", not a form of another tense. The name has stuck.

  Before Fowler's time, earlier Grammars of the English language had classified the tenses of English in a number of different ways, and – in the case of the have + past participle form, using different terms.  
   The first significant analyst of the English language, Samuel Johnson, the great "Dr. Johnson", did not refer to this form as the present perfect, nor did he consider it as a present tense: in his Grammar of the English Tongue, 1766, Johnson called this tense the Compound preterit.
   Goold Brown, in the Grammar of English Grammars (1851) talks of the perfect tense as does Murray, in his English Grammar of 1795.  And in English Grammar and Analysis, an influential English grammar published in London 1889,  Davidson and Alcock refer to the "Perfect (or Present Perfect)" tense.

  So clearly there is no compelling historic or methodological reason for asserting that the so-called present perfect is a form of the present tense, nor that "present perfect" is the only expression that can be used to describe it. It is a convention that has been taken up by modern linguistics; but this does not mean that it is either the best way of doing things, nor that it is even the most logical.  The linguistic argument used to classify the present perfect as a present tense is that the auxiliary have is used in the present tense. This is true; but is it logical ? And more importantly, is it more logical than any alternative classification ?

  In particular, this categorization is highly confusing for both students and teachers; indeed it is confusing to anyone other than linguists.  It flies in the face of logic. Why call a verb form a "present" tense when it refers to past time or events?
    It is also out of sync with the classifications of similar tenses used in other European languages...  which all come from the same historic roots as English.
   The French passé composé, or the Spanish pretérito perfecto, using an identical structure and often serving the same purpose as the English Present Perfect, or the German Perfekt, are considered as past tenses, not as present tenses. So logically it makes sense to consider the English Present perfect as a past tense too.

   Linguistically too, it makes little sense to consider the present perfect as a form of the present tense, on the grounds that it uses the present tense of the auxiliary have. The word have is being used as an auxiliary; it is not the lexical part of the verb structure, nor is it the main verb.  If I have seen were really a present tense, then its negative equivalent would arguably be I don't have seen, and its interrogative form would be Do you have seen ? or even (!) Have you got seen ? – in line with the usage of have  as a principal verb. Clearly this is not the case.

  Finally, in semantic terms, the expression present perfect does not imply a "perfect" (finished) form of the present tense, but a present form of the "perfect" (or finished, i.e. past)  tense. This is very fundamental English usage! In the standard two-word English noun group, the first word is an epithet (adjective); the key word, the noun, in this case perfect, comes second. One may surmise that this is what was implied by whaterver grammarian it was, William Fowler or someone before him, who coined the expression in the first place: he chose the expression present perfect, not  perfect present.

    In the end, it is a question or terminology and classification – and indeed classification and terminology that have not been universally accepted. And terminology, as Shakespeare pointed out, is a matter of choice. " A rose by any other name would smell as sweet".
   To bring the classification of English tenses into line with that of other European languages, not to mention making it more logical, classifying the Present perfect as a present tense in English is a convention, not a scientific observation. Dr. Johnson's term the Compound preterit is maybe a bit heavy; the compound past would be a better choice.

Andrew Rossiter



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