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Chris Lele

SAT Verbs – The Perfect Tense?

Two of the more confusing tenses in English are the present perfect and the past perfect. What makes them so is both describe continuous actions. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the following sentences:

1) Last night, I walked my dog.

2) I have walked Bucky every night for the last two years.

In the first sentence, I am doing the action, ‘walk’, only once. In the second sentence, I am describing something that has taken place on a number of occasions in the past and continues on till today (meaning tonight I will most likely walk Bucky).

The first tense is the simple past (if you look at my description it is very simple). The perfect tenses, on the other hand, aren’t so simple. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at the past perfect.

1) Before I moved to California, I had walked Bucky in the mornings, not at nights.

Whenever we use the past perfect, we want to use the following tense:

Past Perfect: Had + Participle (plus another verb in the Simple Past)

Why use past perfect in this sentence? Well, if you notice, I am talking about two events that happened in the past: my walking Bucky and my moving to California.

Whenever you are dealing with two events in the past, one of which started or happened before the other, you must use the past perfect tense to describe the event that started first.

First Event: I walked Bucky in the morning = Past Perfect Construction

Second Event: I moved to California = Simple Past

Another way to think of the past perfect is with specific dates. Let’s say I moved to California in 1984. I walked Bucky every morning from 1981 to 1984. The sentence implies that once I moved to California I no longer walked Bucky in the morning. That is, an event that happened repeatedly in the past stopped when another event happened. That interrupting event uses the simple past.

Now let’s try a couple of practice questions:

1) After she graduated/had graduated from high school, Jessica decided/had decided to backpack through Europe.

2) Though he studied/had studied the entire weekend, Bobby was only able to get a B- on his Calculus mid-term.

For sentence #1, we have the first event: Jessica graduating. This event must be in the past perfect tense: had graduated. The more recent event, her deciding to backpack, is in the simple past: backpacked.

For #2, the first action is the studying, so we need had studied.

Key Points

#1: Present Perfect: Has/Have + Participle = describes action/event that happened in the past and continues in the present.

#2: Past Perfect: Had + Participle = describes an action/event in the past that happened before another action in the past.

#3: Whenever we use the past perfect, we must also have another verb in the sentence that is in the simple past.

About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 8 million views.

You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog!

You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

3 Responses to “SAT Verbs – The Perfect Tense?”

  1. Smithereens says:

    This really helped, thank you! x

  2. Brad Johnston says:

    Chris Lele:
    There are six principal tenses in English,
    three of which are perfect tenses. The proper
    tense of the word in your title is “Tenses”
    (plural), since there are three of them.
    This: “Whenever you are dealing with
    two events in the past, one of which started
    or happened before the other, you must
    use the past perfect tense to describe the
    event that started first”, is INCORRECT
    and seriously misleading.
    You need to fix it.
    We do NOT say or write, “Chris was born
    in Nashville and his father had been born
    in Amarillo.”

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      Hi Brad,

      I partly agree with your criticisms. And even the points of yours that I don’t agree with are definitely worth looking at and discussing.

      First, regarding the title: “Tense” rather than “tenses” really can be OK here. In writing about grammar “the perfect tense” can be used in singular form to collectively refer to multiple varieties of perfect tense.

      Second, regarding Chris’s stated rule that an earlier event must always be in past perfect tense… You are basically correct. This rule doesn’t always apply. However, I would argue that the example sentence you gave is awkward but not a complete violation of grammar rules. Let’s take a look at the sentence again:

      “Chris was born in Nashville and his father had been born in Amarillo.”

      This does sound a little strange. But it sounds much more natural if you state the earlier event first: “Chris’s father had been born in Amarillo, and Chris was born in Nashville.” The real problem with the statement above is the order of events— if you’re going to use past perfect to emphasize that an event happened first, it makes a lot more sense to also mention the first event before you mention any later events.

      Still, you’re absolutely right that this rule wouldn’t always apply. If you don’t want to emphasize that Chris’s dad was born earlier than Chris (since it can easily be inferred anyway), you could simply say “Chris’s father was born in Amarillo and Chris was born in Nashville.”

      I’ve sent a message to our blog content improvement team, suggesting this post be slightly revised. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

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