Re: English Perfect

From: David R. Mills (
Date: Wed Jun 03 1998 - 20:54:25 EDT

Jonathan Robie wrote:

> I am trying to get a more precise understanding of the Greek perfect by
> comparing and contrasting the Greek perfect and the English perfect. The
> Greek perfect "denotes a completed action the effects of which still
> continue in the present" (Smyth, p.484). This seems to be true of the
> English perfect as well, and it seems that many Greek perfects can be
> translated with English perfects.

Yes, it is true of the English present perfect. Peter Master in _Systems in
English Grammar_ writes: "The present perfect tense shows actions or states
that occurred at some time in the past but that have relevance in the
present." In _The Grammar Book_, Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman say the
present perfect is used in five situations:

a. A situation that began in the past and that continues into the present:
    I have been a teacher since 1972.
b. A past experience with current relevance:
    I have already seen that movie.
c. A very recently completed action:
    Mort has just finished his homework.
d. An action that went on over time in the past and that is completed with
the moment of speaking:
    The value of the Johnsons' house has doubled in the last 4 years.
e. With verbs in subordinate clauses of time or condition:
    She won't be satisfied until she has finished another chapter.

The example in "e." just happens to be future time!

> But what is wrong with "has risen from the dead"? If I understand Wallace
> correctly, he seems to be implying that "has risen from the dead" would
> focus on the belief that John the Baptist "had been resurrected", not on
> the belief that he is alive.

If that is what Wallace is implying, I would say he is wrong.

> Wallace suggests that the English present is often the best translation
> a Greek perfect if the resulting state is emphasized, and that the English
> perfect is the wrong translation for these Greek perfects, because he
> that the English perfect does not emphasize the results, but only the past
> action. Here are some of his examples:
> Mark 6:14 John the baptist *is* *risen* from the dead

An English present perfect here would refer to a past action that has
relevance in the present. The translation above has used the present "be"
verb (not an auxiliary verb) plus the participle "risen," used as a
predicate adjective. This "be" verb is a stative verb which shows very
little concern with the past action and emphasizes the present state. This
is similar to what Jonathan said Wallace implied, but it is not quite the

> But wouldn't the English "he has risen" also mean "he arose and is still
> arisen"? Suppose John had arisen, choked on a piece of meat, and died. At
> that point, to say "he has arisen" is no longer appropriate; "he had
> arisen" would still be an appropriate description of reality, as would "he
> rose".

Exactly right. We can say, "John has rebuked Herod to his face many times"
only as long as John is alive. If he is dead, we must say in English, "John
had rebuked Herod to his face many times." However, I don't know whether
Greek would allow a present perfect here if for some reason the rebuking had
present relevance despite John's death. I seem to remember in a linguistics
class that English is a little unusual in the way a person's death affects

> ** 7. He has arisen and is dead.
> ?? 8. He has arisen but is dead.
> ** 9. Your sins have been forgiven and you are a slave to sin.
> ?? 10. Your sins have been forgiven but you are a slave to sin.

I would mark 7, 8, and 9 as ungrammatical. The last one would be
grammatical if you do not consider the state of slavery to sin and the state
of forgiveness as mutually exclusive states. Being risen and being dead are
mutually exclusive regardless of one's theology.

David Mills
ESL Instructor
Creighton University

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