Revising with the Present Perfect

By Maeve Maddox

The following item appeared in the column of one-sentence news items on the front page of my morning newspaper:

William Bradford Bishop Jr., who was a State Department employee in 1976 when he is suspected of killing his wife, mother and three sons, was added to the FBI’s list of “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” drawing renewed attention to the case.

Conveying a coherent report in 50 words or less is quite a feat, and the writers in my paper usually do an amazingly good job of it. Nevertheless, this strange assortment of verb tenses left my grammar nerve twitching.

The principal fact being reported is that the FBI has added Bishop to the list of “Most Wanted Fugitives.”

Next in importance is the reason for which Bishop was added to the list: he is a suspected murderer.

Last in importance is the fact of Bishop’s employment at the time of the murders.

All three facts refer to past events, so present tense is definitely does not belong.

Changing the is to was would help, but then we would have: “Bishop, who was an employee in 1976 when he was suspected, was added to the list.”

Not only does this revision produce a litany of three wases in a row, it obscures the most recent event being reported: the fact that the man has been added to the “Most Wanted Fugitives” list.

What we need is a tense that will distinguish the most recent past from the remoter past. Enter the present perfect:

William Bradford Bishop Jr., suspected of killing his wife, mother and three sons in 1976 when he was a State Department employee, has been added to the FBI’s list of “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” drawing renewed attention to the case.

Both was added (simple past) and has been added (present perfect) describe completed actions, but the present perfect describes a completed action that is still relevant in the present. The present tense auxiliary has adds an immediacy to the news item that alerts the reader to which of the three facts being reported is the most recent.

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7 Responses to “Revising with the Present Perfect”

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    I have long thought that present perfect tense has been unfairly unfairly sequestered from the pages of newspapers. Sometimes the time element can be most simply conveyed with it.

    Good job.

  • Charles Higginson

    Even clearer emphasis:
    William Bradford Bishop Jr. has been added to the FBI’s list of “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” drawing renewed attention to a case in which he is suspected of killing his wife, mother and three sons in 1976 when he was a State Department employee.

    or take it out of the passive altogether:
    The FBI has added William Bradford Bishop Jr. to its list of “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” drawing renewed attention to a case in which he is suspected of killing his wife, mother and three sons in 1976 when he was a State Department employee.

  • Claude

    The articles always seem to use American English, so shouldn’t it be “wife, mother, and three sons”? Or are we removing that comma to avoid making the paragraph look convoluted?

    Other than that, while this was a great article, it surprises me that such errors made it to the newspaper. My English is mediocre at best, but even I can tell there was something wrong with the original paragraph. To me, it’s obvious.

  • Curtis

    The original form of that sentence hurt my brain. It makes me wonder why the editor of that newspaper failed to edit it.

    Good job; I like how you deconstructed the wreckage and put it back together properly.

  • D.A.W.

    I agree with Curtis that the original news sentence was painful to read and to make sense of. It hurt.

    In addition, there is the problem of journalists and the writers of TV documentaries who write everything in the present tense – even when it happened 150 years ago (for example). Not only have they forgotten about all of the perfect tenses, but they have also ignored the simple past and the future tense.

    They write or say things like “Lee sides with his native Virginia, instead of with the Union.” To that, I reply “Huh?” because that happened in 1861. Hence “sided” is the correct verb.

  • Glenn

    This also brings to mind a bigbear of mind, but I can’t quite nail it. It’s the use of the perfect tense to describe a past event. It’s prevalent here in Australia and began with “police media” and has overflowed via the crime reporters into general journalism, mostly on TV and radio (ie media with sound).

    “It appears that the suspect has taken to his mother-in-law with a meat cleaver and has then proceeded to drive the wrong-way up the freeway. He has then stolen fuel from the service centre.”

    Why not, “It appears that the suspect took to his mother-in-law with a meat cleaver and then proceeded to drive the wrong-way up the freeway. He then stole fuel from the service centre.”

    With my limited grammatical ability I can’t fail the first sentence but it bugs me. Why?

  • venqax

    @Glenn: It’s like over-use of the passive voice. It isn’t wrong, it’s just clumsy, inelegant, and it sounds affected and stupid. It’s “faddish”, although why adults who are supposed to be professionals would be influenced by such twaddle, especially in their professional roles, is completely mystifying. Or mystifying is what it seems to be that twaddle like such has to been what adults are having been influenced by.

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