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GMAT Verb Tenses: The Perfect Tenses

Master these tricky tenses that the GMAT loves!

Verbs are action words, and verb tenses indicate something about when that action took place.  The most basic tenses are Past, Present, and Future — those are useful for one-time open-and-shut actions.

1) King John signed the Magna Carta in Runnymede Meadow on June 15, 1215.

2) Today, I eat a kiwi as I write this blog.

3) The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, known popularly as the “Mayan Calendar”, will end its current cycle on December 20, 2012.

There’s only one Magna Carta and there’s only one Mayan Calendar, and so these events are unique and thus warrant the Simple Past and Simple Future respectively.  The second sentence is interesting: all the sentence tells us is about the isolated present moment event.  Is this Mike’s very first time eating a kiwi? Or is this part of a longstanding pattern? an everyday occurrence? The Simple Present is curiously devoid of any information outside of the one-time event.

By contrast, many of the interesting and emotionally significant events in our lives are not isolated one-shot deals, but more nuanced in terms of interconnection and duration.  Not surprisingly, the grammar of verb tense reflects that.

In a previous post, I discussed the progressive tenses, those tenses that describe action in progress.  In this post, I will discuss the perfect tenses.  Here, we obviously do not mean “perfect” in the philosophical or religious or mathematical sense, but rather in the more etymologically pure sense of “completed” or “done thoroughly” (from the Latin per = “through, thorough” + fect/factum = “done, accomplished”).  Events described in the perfect tenses, in one sense or another, already have been done.


The present perfect

What would it mean to be “thoroughly done” and yet “present “?  That would be an ongoing event which has happened in the past and continues through without interruption to the present moment.  That’s precisely what the Present Perfect describes.

4) The Hon. John Dingell, the current longest serving member of Congress, has been a U.S. Representative since 1955.

5) I have eaten a kiwi many mornings as I work.

6) The New York Mets have been defeated more than 20 times since the 2012 All Star Break.

Notice that sentence #4 tell us about an event, Congressman Dingell’s tenure, that has been happening for longer than most readers of this blog have been alive, and yet still continues at the present writing.  Notice that sentence #5 is considerably more informative that the Simple Present of sentence #2 above: by contrast, sentence #5 establishes an ongoing pattern which has occurred in the past and continues until the present moment.  As for sentence #6 — you know, leave me alone!  I would just rather not talk about it!!  😛

Notice the form of the Present Perfect = “have”/”has” + [the past participle].  The passive voice in the Present Perfect = “have”/”has” + “been” + [the past participle].   See this post for more information on past participles.  The past participle is the principle verb form used in all the perfect tenses.


The past perfect

What would it mean to be “thoroughly done” and also “past”?  That would be something that is already over and finished by the time another past even happens: in other words, it’s the past of the past!  That’s precisely what the Past Perfect describes.

6) By the time Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man in 1871, Gregor Mendel already had discovered, during his famous pea plant experiments, the genetic principles that ultimately would explain and justify Darwin’s conclusions.

7) Three years before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon to challenge fellow Triumvir Pompey for uncontested control of Rome, the weakest link in the First Triumvirate, Marcus Licinius Crassus, had been killed in battle with the Parthians.

Notice in both cases, the past perfect verbs describe events that happen before another past event.  Darwin published The Descent of Man in the past, but Mendel’s genetic research happened before that.  Caesar crossed the Rubicon in the past, but Crassus’ death happened before that.  The GMAT Sentence Correction absolutely loves the past perfect: expect to see this tense frequently in the SC section.

Notice the form of the Past Perfect: the active voice = “had” + [the past participle], and the passive voice “had” + “been” + [the past participle].


The future perfect

What would it mean to be “thoroughly done” and also “future”?  That would something that, from the vantage of a future event, has already happened or been done: in other words, it’s the past of the future!  That’s precisely what the Future Perfect describes.

8) By the time of the Pyeongchang Summer Olympics in 2018, the United States will have gone through two more Presidential Elections.

9) At the time of the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field, the host New York Mets will not yet have won 4000 games as a franchise.

The Pyeongchang Summer Olympics is future event, and the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections will be in the past from that perspective.  As for #9 — Hey! Why are you picking on me this way?  😛

The form of the Future Perfect: “will have” + [the past participle]; the exceeding rare passive voice has the form: “will have been” + [the past participle].

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