Participles and Perfect Verb Tenses

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Some comments I received on the post about the forms of the irregular verb “drink” indicate that not everyone is clear as to how participles are used to form verb tenses that use the helping verbs “has, have” and “had.” Here’s a review.

Participles are verb forms, but they are incomplete. In order to function as “real” verbs, they must be used with helping verbs.

English has two participles: the present participle and the past participle.

The present participle always ends in -ing: jumping, skiing, writing, drinking, sighing, etc.

The past participle usually ends in -ed, as in called, climbed, interrogated, and studied. Many verbs, however, have past participles that do not end in -ed.

Some, for example, end in -en:
write/wrote/(have) written
bite/bit/(have) bitten
take/took/(have) taken

Some end in -t:
mean/meant/(have) meant
creep/crept/(have) crept
sleep/slept/(have) slept

Many irregular verbs, like drink, have distinctive past participle forms:
drink/drank/(have) drunk
go/went/(have) gone
am-is/was/(have) been
slay/slew/(have) slain

Participles have numerous uses, but right now I’m just looking at how they are used to form the following verb tenses:

present perfect
past perfect
present perfect progressive
past perfect progressive

Present Perfect
The present perfect tense is used to describe
a) an action that happened at an indefinite time in the past
b) an action that that began in the past and continues in the present

The helping verbs used with the past participle to form the present perfect tense are has and have:

The House of Windsor has ruled England since 1917.
My sister has tried every kind of shampoo on the market.
We have written to them numerous times without receiving an answer.

Past Perfect Tense
The past perfect tense is used to describe an action that took place in the past before another past action. The helping verb used with the past participle to form the past perfect is had:

Before reinforcements arrived, the enemy had captured most of the men.

Present Perfect Progressive
The present perfect progressive describes an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. The present participle is used with the helping verbs has been and have been to form the present perfect progressive:

I have been thinking about going to France one more time.
Charlie has been trying to make the team for two years now.
We have been sitting in the park for hours.
The teachers have been meeting after school to plan the new schedules.

Past Perfect Progressive
The past perfect progressive describes a past, ongoing action that was completed before some other past action. The present participle is used with the helping verbs had been to form the past perfect progressive:

When the accident occurred, she had been talking on her cell phone.

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16 thoughts on “Participles and Perfect Verb Tenses”

  1. I must admit I’m a little confused here.

    Are all the -ed (or -en or -t) forms always past participles that need a helper verb?
    That is, are:

    I walked the dog.
    I meant what I said.

    both wrong? Or am I missing something?

  2. @ApK
    The simple past and the participle forms of a verb are frequently spelled the same.

    For example, “walked” is the simple past form. It is also the past participle form. Ditto meant and meant.

    In the sentence “I walked the dog,” walked is the simple past. In the sentence “I have walked the dog, but he wants to go out again,” walked is the past participle.

  3. That’s something that most Spanish speakers never understand, since the “present participle” is almost lost in Spanish. I think I could write about this 🙂

  4. >In the sentence “I walked the dog,” walked is the simple past. In the sentence “I have walked the dog, but he wants to go out again,” walked is the past participle.<

    Hmm. Wouldn't:

    "I walked the dog, but he wants to go outside again"
    mean the same thing? It seems like "have walked" in that sentence would be more reflexive emphasis, perhaps even superfluous, than a change of tense.

    "I have walked the dog before, and will again." seems to more clearly illustrate the difference in tense.

    This is topic that has confused me since grammar school.
    I still don't know what a dangling participle is.


  5. As per the classification, helping verb, have is used for present perfect, and had is used for past perfect. I have seen many places where two helping verbs are used together like “have had”.

    What would be the scenario to use this kind of mixing of helping verbs?

  6. Maeve–and (just to check my understanding) future perfect and future perfect progressive are essentially analogous? FP being used to describe an action expected to be completed in the future before another future action: “By the time you read this, I will have moved on to read another blog.” and FPP being used to describe an action in the future which will continue up to the point that another action begins: “By the time I get this correctly written I will have been writing and rewriting for fifteen minutes or more.”

  7. future perfect progressive, cool!, I barely hear that.
    Javier is right the Spanish we speak in Central and South America is way different form the one in Spain.and perfect tenses are not correctly used; Instead of future perfect we use simple past for example “by the time you’re back I already finished the report”, ” I will have finished it” would make better sense

  8. @Mohan
    “Have” is a helping verb, but it can also be used as a complete verb with the meaning of “to possess”:

    I have a cat.
    He has a Toyota.
    We have a dream.

    The principal parts of this verb are “have or has/ had/ (have) had.”

    When you see “have had,” you are seeing “have” the helping verb being used with the past participle of “have” the complete verb.

    I have had this telephone number since 1990.
    He has had that scar since he was a child.
    He had had a headache for three days before the doctor agreed to see him.

  9. At a local pub I frequent, they have the names of all 140 beers they carry on a list and you can fill out your own list with the date you consumed each of those beers. Next to the name of the beer it reads, “date drank”. Shouldn’t that read, “date drunk”?

  10. @ Rae
    Yes, it should read “date drunk.” Perhaps the publican shares Roberta B’s view of the word “drunk.” (See comments following the post on the forms of “drink”:

  11. I am struggling a bit here, but what is the difference (if any) between the perfect and particple tense? How do I tell a student the difference?

  12. Mark,
    There’s no such thing as a “participle tense.” A participle is a form of the verb. English has two participles: present and past.

    The present participle ends in -ing. It is used to form the progressive tenses.

    The past participle is the form of the verb that is used with forms of have. With regular verbs, the past participle ends in -ed. With irregular verbs, it takes different forms. Ex. I have studied. He has gone. We had sung.

  13. Can someone explain why this sentence is incorrect:
    “I am almost finishing this book.”
    And explain why perfect tense is preferred (have almost finished…)
    I’m looking for evidence a concrete rule. I know it doesn’t sound right, but I can’t find and explanation as to why that is the case.

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