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Let me make one tense perfectly clear ....

IF PRESIDENT CLINTON'S SPEECH to the nation is missing, would you say, "He has lost his speech" or "He lost his speech"? If Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson does not need a haircut, would you say, "He had a haircut" or "He has had a haircut"?

The answers depend on an understanding of the perfect tense, which expresses a relationship between two times. One meaning of the present-perfect tense (when "have" or "has" precedes the main verb) is that the effect of a past situation applies in the present. The difference between President Clinton "has lost his speech" and "lost his speech" is that the former implies that the speech is still missing; in the latter statement it may or may not still be missing.

"He had a haircut" means only that he had a haircut sometime in the past, perhaps yesterday, or perhaps during the Iran-contra scandal or the Watergate hearings. "He has had a haircut" means that a haircut is not needed at this time, but the statement does not necessarily mean that the haircut was recent.

The past-perfect tense (when "had" precedes the main verb) indicates that one past time occurs before another past time. In "'If the explosion didn't get them, the carbon monoxide did,' said miner Chad Blevins, who was standing 500 yards from the blast," Blevins is speaking at the time of the blast. "Who had been standing 500 yards from the blast," however, indicates that the blast occurred earlier; the statement was spoken later.

Perfect participles (when "having" precedes past participles) also convey the relationship between two times. The following statements have different meanings:

Falling 5,000 feet, D.B. Cooper died in the Oregon wilderness.

Having fallen 5,000 feet, D.B. Cooper died in the Oregon wilderness.

After writing her column, Ann Landers ate a slice of cheesecake.

After having written her column, Ann Landers ate a slice of cheesecake.

If there is no significant interval between events, the present participle is used, so "falling" 5,000 feet is correct if Cooper died on impact. "Having fallen 5,000 feet, he died" implies that the death occurred after the impact -- that there were two times and a significant interval between them. Likewise, if Landers ate cheesecake immediately after writing a column, "writing" is correct. If she mailed the column at the post office before eating cheesecake, "having written" is correct.

Ron Davis is administrator of journalism programs at State University of New York in Plattsburgh and consultant/writing coach for the Press-Republican in Plattsburgh.
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Title Annotation:Point of Grammar; use of the perfect tense
Author:Davis, Ron
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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