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22.2: Uses of the perfect

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    McCawley (1971), Comrie (1976), and others identify four major uses, or semantic functions, of the present perfect in English: (i) experiential (or existential) perfect, illustrated in (3); (ii) perfect of persistent situation (also known as the universal reading), illustrated in (4); (iii) perfect of continuing result, illustrated in (5); (iv) perfect of recent past (the “hot news” reading), illustrated in (6). Similar uses are found in a number of other languages.

    (3)    Experiential (or Existential) reading

            a.    Have you ever tasted fresh durian?

            b.    I have climbed Mt. Fuji twice in the past six months.

    (4)    Perfect of persistent situation (Universal perfect)

            a. He has lived in Canberra since 1975.

            b. I have been waiting for three days.

    (5)    Perfect of continuing result

            a. I have lost my glasses, so I can’t read this telegram.

            b. The governor has fainted; don’t let the press know until he regains consciousness.

    (6)    Recent past (or “hot news”) reading

            a. A group of former city employees has just abducted the Mayor.

            b. The American president has announced new trade sanctions against the Vatican.

    Kiparsky (2002) mentions a fifth use of the perfect, attested in languages such as Swahili, Sanskrit, and ancient Greek, which he calls the Stative Present. In these languages, the perfect form can be used to refer to events, as in English; but it can also be used to refer to the state that results from an event. Some Swahili examples are provided in (7).2

    (7)    Swahili (Ashton 1944)
                Root                                         Perfect form
                -fika            ‘arrive’                     a-me-fika             ‘he has arrived’
                -iva             ‘ripen’                      ki-me-iva              ‘it is ripe’
                -choka        ‘get tired’                  a-me-choka          ‘he is tired’
                -simama     ‘stand up’                  a-me-simama       ‘he is standing’
                -sikia          ‘hear, feel’                 a-me-sikia            ‘he understands’

    We will focus our discussion on the four uses illustrated in (3–6). Comrie (1976) and others have attempted to unify these four readings under a single definition in terms of “current relevance”. Comrie says that the perfect is used to express a past event which is relevant to the present situation. That is, it signals that some event in the past has produced a state of affairs which continues to be true and significant at the present moment.

    Other authors have suggested that what the various uses of the perfect share is reference to an indefinite past time. Klein (1992; 1994) for example, building on the analysis of Reichenbach (1947), suggests that the perfect indicates that Time of Situation precedes Topic Time. A number of other authors have adopted some version of Reichenbach’s analysis as well, often arguing that the different readings arise through various pragmatic inferences.

    A very influential proposal by McCoard (1978) argues that the meaning of the perfect locates the described event within the “Extended Now”, an interval of time which begins in the past and includes the utterance time.

    The intuitive idea of the Extended Now is that we typically count a longer stretch of time than the momentary “now” as the present for conversational purposes. Its exact duration is contextually determined, since what we count as “the present” in this sense may vary depending on the conversational topic. (Portner 2003)

    Some authors, however, including McCawley (1971; 1981b), Michaelis (1994; 1998), and Kiparsky (2002), have argued that the English perfect is polysemous, and that at least some of the readings listed above must be recognized as fully distinct senses. We will discuss some of the evidence which supports this claim in §22.4


    2 Kiparsky notes that this reading is available in English only with a single verb: I’ve got (=I have) five dollars in my pocket (cf. Jespersen 1931: 47). Comrie treats the Stative Present as a sub-type of his “perfect of result”.


    22.2: Uses of the perfect is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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