Jespersen's and the CGEL's accounts of the Past Tense, the Present Perfect and the Past Perfect - a comparison

Seminar Paper, 2000

11 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of the Present Perfect

3. Relations between the Present Perfect and the Simple Present

4. Relations between the Present Perfect and the Past Tense
4.1 Various Subjuncts
4.2 Time not expressly indicated
4.3 Past Tense for Before-Past
4.4 The Perfect
4.5 Perfect for Before-Future
4.6 Tenses with ‚since‘

5. The Past Perfect

6. Imaginative use of Tenses

7. Back-Shifting

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In general, Jespersen, unlike the CGEL, doesn’t explain the use of the following tenses as one would expect from a standard grammar (the CGEL clearly explains the meanings and the use of the three tenses in question by clarifying these aspects by means of easily comprehensible examples), but relates the Present Perfect, the Past Tense and the Past Perfect to each other and gives various quotations for each aspect he deals with. Therefore, it may sometimes be a bit confusing to comprehend every detail of Jespersen’s way of argumentation.

2. Definition of the Present Perfect

For Otto Jespersen, the Perfect is not a tense of its own, but a kind of Present Tense, and serves to connect the present time with the past (Jespersen, 47.)[1] In his opinion, the Perfect is a retrospective present, which looks upon the present state as a result of what has happened in the past, as well as an inclusive present, which speaks of a state that is continued from the past into the present time. Thus, the Perfect has a “presentic“ character ( J, 47).

The CGEL, however, defines the „Present Perfective“, as it says, in contrast to the Simple Past by emphasizing that the former signifies past time with current relevance (CGEL, 190)[2]:

e. g.: John lived in Rome for ten years.

John has lived in Rome for ten years.

Here both sentences indicate a state of affairs before the present moment, but the Simple Past indicates that the period of residence has come to a close, whereas the Present Perfective indicates that the residence has continued up to the present time (and may even continue into the future). Hence, the perfective indicates in its broadest possible interpretation anterior time (ie time preceding whatever time orientation is signalled by tense or by other elements of the sentence or its context) (CGEL, 190).

3. Relations between the Present Tense and the Present Perfect

By means of the following expressions Jespersen relates the Present Tense to the Present Perfect:

a) Have got: Here Jespersen states that in colloquial English I have got (I’ve got) has to a great extent lost the meaning of an ordinary perfect and has become a real present with the same meaning as I have (‚have in my possession‘); and in the same way the pluperfect (as he calls the Past Perfect) I had got (I’d got) has come to be notional preterit (as he describes the Past Tense) (J, 47).

e.g.: „What a delitious shop you have got!“ (Dekker)

b) Is dead- has died: According to Jespersen, He is dead might in certain respects be con- considered a perfect of he dies, and therefore we often find it combined with the preterit, etc. of die. Still, there is a difference between he is (was) dead and he has (had) died. The former is a real present and emphasizes the state, while the latter is retrospective and emphasizes the transition that has taken place (J, 54f.).

c) Inclusive time: In Jespersen’s MEG the term „inclusive time“ is used when an express- ion denoting a specified length of duration is meant to include the notion that the action or state implied is still (or was still, or will be still) lasting at the time implied in the sentence. So, e.g., a man who was married in 1920, speaking in the year 1940, will say: „I have been married (now) twenty years“. => inclusive present, or also: „In 1930 I had been married ten years“.

- inclusive past (J, 56f.).

In contrast to this, Quirk et al. distinguish between the perfective and the progressive aspects as well as between the terms tense and aspect. The term aspect, they say, refers to a grammatical category which reflects the way in which the verb action is regarded or experienced with respect to time. Unlike tense, aspect is not relative to the time of utterance. For some purposes, the two aspect constructions of English (the perfective and the progressive) can be seen as realizing a basic contrast of aspect between the action viewed as complete (perfective), and the action viewed as incomplete, ie. in progress (progressive) (CGEL, 188f.). In fact, aspect is so closely connected in meaning with tense, that they nearly overlap (CGEL, 189).


[1] Jespersen, Otto. 1909- 49. A modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Part IV. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Abbreviation in the following text: J.

[2] Quirk, Randolph et al. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman. Abbreviation in the following text: CGEL.

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Jespersen's and the CGEL's accounts of the Past Tense, the Present Perfect and the Past Perfect - a comparison
University of Würzburg  (Philosophy Institute)
2+ (B)
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ISBN (Book)
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Jespersen, CGEL, Past, Tense, Present, Perfect, Past, Perfect, Proseminar
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Oliver Kast (Author), 2000, Jespersen's and the CGEL's accounts of the Past Tense, the Present Perfect and the Past Perfect - a comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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