Future Perfect

rogersgeorge on July 15th, 2016

You hardly ever see the future perfect tense any more. I ran into an example the other day in a book I’m reading (Big Science—Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik.) Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a device that the bigger you make it, the better it works. But to make it bigger, you need rich patrons, which he was good at getting money from. The device turned out to be instrumental in building the atomic bomb, and the rest is history, you could say. The LHC in Geneva is its direct descendant. His practice of obtaining large amounts of money and large teams of participants has led to about all of our current high-tech culture, from the space program to video games. Here’s the sentence, written by Ernest in a letter to his parents:

If the work should pan out the way I hope, it will be by all odds the most important thing I will have done.

There, at the end, we have a future perfect. Verbs deal in some way with time, and that’s how we name them, past, present, future. Other languages deal with time somewhat differently, but that’s a topic for another day. The genius of the perfect tenses in English is that they convey the idea of something happening over a stretch of time, and then ending. For example,

I have lived in this house all my life.

That’s present perfect; I lived for a period of time (all my life) until now, the present.

How about the past perfect? Something happened for a stretch of time, and ended in the past.

I had lived in that house until I got married. Then I lived in a mansion.

And the future perfect? Something happens for a stretch of time that ends in the future.

If I live another five years and don’t move out, I will have lived in this house for fifty years.

Keep your ears open—maybe you’ll catch an occasional future perfect.

And just for grins, here’s a picture of the first and third or so cyclotron. That’s Ernest on the right. Photo via google.

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Correct, but could be better

rogersgeorge on October 27th, 2012

You can write a sentence that is perfectly correct grammatically, but it’s still not right. (Finding these sentences is one reason to let your work sit for a while, then re-read it.) Here’s an example of a sentence that’s technically correct in its grammar, but it’s not correct in its context.

Artifacts created from one of the five buttes, Obsidian Butte, first appear in Native American villages around 510 B.C. to 640 B.C. … However, for decades, researchers thought Obsidian Butte erupted thousands of years earlier.

To be really correct, the sentence should say “…Obsidian Butte had erupted thousands of years earlier.” The sentence is in an article on volcanism in the Salton Sea in Scientific American online, and I encourage you to read it. The  sentence refers to something that happened in the past, the eruptions. So far, so good. But the eruptions that happened in the past ended before something else that happened in the past, namely the creation of the artifacts. When you have something that starts in the past, and ends in the past, you should use the past perfect, not the simple past.

The only photo of the butte I could find was copyrighted, so here’s a picture of some obsidian in situ

Read the article and you will see a couple more places where the past perfect is more correct. It will be good practice for you.

Getting verbs right part 2

rogersgeorge on February 12th, 2012

First, a little linguistics lesson. If you want, you can skip to the last two paragraphs.

These folks haven't discovered the joys of linguistics yet

Hebrew doesn’t have tenses the way English does. Hebrew has aspect. Aspect has to do with whether what the verb describes is over with or not. The perfective aspect translates pretty easily into our simple past (He ran). After all, if an action is over with, it’s in the past, right? And the imperfective aspect goes pretty well with our  present progressive (He is running). (Greek has a past tense called the aorist that has this perfective aspect, equivalent to our simple past; and an imperfective past tense equivalent to our past progressive, “He was running.”) Here are a few examples:

Hebrew: katal—English: he killed. Hebrew: okal (pronounced okayl)—English: he is eating.  Hebrew doesn’t have a way to say “he eats.” (As far as I know, but we translate it that way a lot.)

We have aspect in English, too but we don’t usually call it that—partly, I suppose, because we have some verb forms that don’t quite fit. Some of our verb forms do, though. Our simple past fits into the perfective aspect, too. And the progressive tenses are all imperfective regardless of when they happen. I am running and I was running are both imperfective.

All that to introduce today’s lesson, how to use the past perfect and present perfect tenses, which show both aspects!

The last two paragraphs:

1. The past perfect says that something was done and then ended in the past.

He had entertained thoughts of being the winner until he saw the score.

The trick to using the past perfect is you need to make some indication of when the deed ended, not just when it happened. In this case, it’s the phrase “until he saw the score.” Here’s the rule: if you don’t state or clearly imply when the deed ended, use the simple past. For example, “Yesterday he entertained thoughts of winning.” You’re saying when he did it, but not when he stopped. Simple past. Let’s turn the rule around: If you use the past perfect, indicate when the deed ended.

2. The present perfect means that something began in the past and continues until now.

He has entertained thoughts of winning ever since he began training. Also: Ever since he began training, he has entertained thoughts of winning.

The trick with the present perfect is that you need to indicate when the deed started. In this case, it’s the phrase “ever since he started training.” If you don’t give an indication of when it started, consider rewriting your sentence.

I won’t get into the perfect progressive tenses, which emphasize the imperfective aspect even more. (“He has been entertaining” and “He had been entertaining,” if you’re curious.)

And we’ll save the future perfect for a future post.