The Present Perfect Will Not Go Away Just Because You Ignore It

Why do you think I spend the largest proportion of my teaching time on just one element of the English language, and the largest proportion of my planning time devising new ways to teach it? Is it because:
A) …this particular element is rare and difficult to put into context?
B) …this particular element is extraordinarily complicated and difficult to use?
C) …the element in question exudes a sort of protective magic that prevents learners from engaging with it?
I’ll not beat about the bush. It’s the magic one.

I’m talking about the present perfect. It’s a very common, everyday part of English speech and writing. It is used in a variety of contexts. During conversation, it is very often intermingled with other present tenses and past tenses, making it one of the most important structures to learn, even for those speakers wishing to possess merely ‚conversational‘ English skills. It is composed of one (1) helping verb – either have or has, depending on the subject of the sentence – and a past participle. In it’s progressive variation, it is even easier, as the verb that follows is always been. Aside from the relatively large amount of irregular verbs in the English language, then, it is not too difficult.

In that case, why is it that I am forced to teach and re-teach the same element over and over again, to students who seem to have no recollection of ever having heard of it before? If – as some might justifiably suppose – I am simply a terrible teacher, then there is nothing more to be done. For me, however, this is an unsatisfactory answer, as even the basest and most boring teacher can eventually achieve results by rote repetition and ‚drilling‘, results that, for some of my students, are a long time in coming.

I also have no desire to simply blame my students. For a start, it’s bad business practice, and secondly, it is far too easy. Let us assume instead that this tense has a magical power that encourages students to delete it from their heads. Let me give you an example: when I was studying music, there was a friend of mine who had to learn a very difficult piece. It was within her capabilities, but it was challenging nonetheless. However, she practised and practised, and eventually got the whole thing under her fingers, with the exception of one passage. It was a passage of fiendish difficulty, so disheartening to her that, in the end, she barely practised it at all.

When the time came for her recital, she played the piece very well – minus that one passage. She simply left it out. This was enough to fool anyone who had not heard the piece before, but not for fans of classical saxophone music, of which more than a few were in attendance. Also, sadly, it was not enough to fool her assessors, who were unable to give her a satisfactory mark. The piece, they said, was not complete. It did not sound full, or rounded. That one passage that she did not play left a hollow in the piece that no amount of diaphragm control and clever fingerwork could fill.

In exactly the same way, I believe, students of mine are thrown by the nature of the present perfect. For many learners, it is not intuitive in its usage, not exactly ‚user friendly‘. It requires a good knowledge of irregular past participles, a knowledge which is gained, in the most part, through drilling oneself with vocabulary lists, cue cards, and such things. Because of this, many students succumb to the present perfect’s magical powers of discouragement.

Because they do not like it, they do not practise it. Because they do not practise it, they do not use it. As long as they do not use it, they never become comfortable with it. And for as long as they are not comfortable with it, they do not like it. Round and round they go; hoping, perhaps, that nobody will notice, that they will somehow ‚get away with it‘.

But they won’t.

Because there are always fans of classical saxophone music in attendance, and there are always assessors. I should know: I’m both. But don’t let the title of this little piece lead you astray. In my world, the present perfect is a grammatical element. Maybe your personal ‚present perfect‘ is that new software your company bought that you don’t completely like. Maybe your present perfect is the particulars of tax accounting law. To use a metaphor from the world of fantasy: As long as you do not slay your dragon, it will continue to terrorise the countryside.

The present perfect will not go away just because you ignore it.

Slay it.