English Tenses and Aspects 5 - The Retrospective Aspect
5.1. Traditional 'Rules'.
This form, traditionally known as the perfect, may be unmarked, I have worked, or marked, I had worked. Typical lists in grammars of the uses of the forms include:
An action begun in the past and continuing through the present: My boss has lived there since 1998.
An action begun in the past continuing up to the present, but not beyond: Hello, Neil. I haven't seen you for ages.
A past action occurring within a time period considered still to be continuing: Peter has called me four times today.
An action occurring at an unspecified past time that has current relevance: I've already eaten.
Actions occurring in the very recent past (often with just): The Bensons have just arrived.
Future time and conditional clauses: We will leave when Paul has finished.
An action begun in the past and continuing through later past time: Jed had lived in Prague for five years before he began to speak Czech.
An action begun in the past continuing up to a later past time, but not beyond: Howard was pleased to bump into Neil. They hadn't seen each other
A past action occurring within a time period still continuing at a later past time: I was getting angry. Peter had called me four times that day.
An action occurring at some past time that had relevance at a later past time: Mary wanted me to go with her, but I'd already seen the film.
An Action occurring in the very recent prior past (often with just): The Principal looked up. His secretary had just come through the door.
Past counterfactual hypothetical situations: I wish I hadn't dropped out of university.
Some uses appear connected, but learners might be forgiven for wondering how they could know which was meant. Fortunately, as with other tenses and aspects, there is a simpler explanation.
5.2. The Retrospective ‘Rule'.
The connection between all constructions described by utterances using a ‘perfect' form is that the speaker is looking back on the situation from a later point in time. The situation is viewed retrospectivelyi. A simple 'rule' that covers all uses of this aspect is:
We use the retrospective aspect when we look back from one point in time to a situation that began at a previous time and is connected in some way to the time from which we are looking back.
Once again, we can add what we know from other tenses and aspects:
We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation, in vividness, reality or directness.
We can see the application of this in the examples given above:
……1. My Boss has lived therd since 1998.
……2. Hello, Neil. I haven't seen you for ages.
……3. Peter has called me four times today.
……4. I've already eaten.
In these examples we clearly have situations, living, not-seeing, calling, eating that began before the time of retrospection - the present moment. It is equally clear that the situations are connected to the time of retrospection. In  – , the time period extends from the past to that time. In , the connection is that the speaker, at the present time of retrospection, is not hungry, a result of past-time eating. This, or similar present consequences of a past situation, and whether the situation continues up to, or through, the time of retrospection, will be clear from the context.
……5. The Bensons have just arrived.
In  the situation is, in the speaker's mind, so close to the present that this closeness/vividness is the connection. The fact is that the situation however recent, actualised in the past, and speakers can choose to distance it in time:
……5a. The Bensons just arrived.
Speakers of BrE tend to view such recent past situations retrospectively ; It is also true that in looking back at the arrival, the speaker is thinking of the present situation – The Bensons are now at a particular place. AmE speakers tend to distance them [5a]. The same is true when already, yet, recently are used.
……6. We will leave when Paul has finished.
The time of retrospection, the time of leaving, is future and the actualisation of the finishing looked back on is before that time. Depending on the situations foreseen, there may be little difference in the length of time between the finishing and the leaving in  and [6a]:
……6a. We will leave when Paul finishes.
However, in , the speaker has chosen to see the leaving as actualising at the end of a time period, however short, after the finishing. In [6a], the situation could be seen as actualising at the same time.
……7. Jed had lived in Prague for 5 years before he began to learn Czech.
……8. Howard was pleased to bump into Neil. They hadn't seen each other for ages.
……9. I was getting angry. Peter had called me four times that day.
……10. Mary wanted me to go with her, but I'd already seen the film.
……11. The Principal looked up. His secretary had just come through the door.
These five examples are very similar to  –  above, except that now the time of retrospection has been distanced in time; it occurred in the past. The action looked back on occurred before that past time of retrospection.
Note that when the sequence of events is made clear by such words as before and after, speakers may choose to present the situation simply as a string of past events, as in
……7a. Tom lived in Prague for 5 years before he began to learn Czech.
……12. I wish I hadn't dropped out of university.
Here the speaker is looking back from the present time on a past situation, the dropping out. This is already distanced in time (The speaker did drop out). The speaker uses the marked retrospective form to show additional distancing in reality (the hypothetical non-actualisation of the not dropping out ). This form is very common in counterfactual conditionals, which we consider in later threads.
This form, traditionally known as the present/past perfect continuous or progressive, may be unmarked, I have been working, or marked, I had been working. Typical lists in grammars of the uses of the forms include:
Temporary situation with present consequence: I'm filthy; I've been cleaning out the attic.
An action filling a time period that extends up to the present moment: Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours.
Repeated/continuous action with present consequence: I've been teaching for many years (so I know what I'm talking about).
Action begun in the past and still continuing: John's been working here since January.
……17. Past temporary situation with consequence at a past time: He had been drinking heavily, and it showed in his speech.
……18. An action filling a time period that extends up to a past moment: Wendy had been working on her accounts, but she put them away when Stan arrived.
……19. Repeated continuous past action with later consequence: He had been preparing for this for years. He was ready.
……20. An action begun before a past moment, and continuing through that moment: The president had been speaking for three hours when Martin fell asleep.
……21. Past counterfactual hypothetical situations. If you had been listening, you would know the answer.
5.3.1. Retrospective-Durative ‘Rules'
It is simpler to consider all these utterances, and all other retrospective-durative utterances, as being covered by these two ideas:
We use the retrospective aspect when we look back from one point in time to a situation that began at a previous time and is connected in some way to the time from which we are looking.
We use the durative aspect when we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation spoken of has duration, and that the duration is limited.
For the marked form, we add this idea:
We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation, in vividness, reality or directness.
Now let us consider again sentences  to :
……13. I'm filthy; I've been cleaning out the attic.
Clearly the speaker is looking back from the present moment, when they are filthy, to the situation that led to their filthiness. That situation is the cleaning out of the attic, an action which had duration.
I was cleaning out …, while not impossible, is unlikely in BrE. The marked form distances the action in time, and so removes the retrospective idea that would relate the past action to the present state.
I have cleaned out…, is possible, but also not so likely as the durative form. By not stressing the duration of the action, which ties the action more closely to the person performing it, the speaker is presenting the present relevance of the whole action, the cleaning out of the attic. The focus is more on the present state of the attic than on that of the speaker.
The alternative forms mentioned in the last two paragraphs reinforce a point made several times in these threads: in many situations, a speaker has a free choice between tenses/aspects. There is often no ‘prescribed' tense/aspect for any given situation. Corpora and Ngrams may show one to be (far) more common than any other(s); that does not mean to say that the others are incorrect or unnatural.
……14. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours.
The sitting began six hours ago and has continued up to the present moment, so was sitting, placing the sitting in the past, is not appropriate. Has sat is possible, but it lacks the emphasis on the duration of the sitting.
Incidentally, we cannot tell from those words whether Emma stops sitting as, or just before, the speaker utters them, or continues sitting. Context will make that clear:
……14a. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours. I hope she takes a break
soon. (Emma is still sitting at the computer.)
…….14b. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours. I'm glad she's taking a break. (Emma is not still sitting at the computer.)
……15. I've been teaching for many years (so I know what I'm talking about).
……16. John's been working here since January.
Unlike the sitting in , the actions of teaching and working have not gone on without breaks – one works/teaches only so many hours a day and weeks a year. That, however, is part of the semantic content of the words themselves, and does not affect the overall implications of the use of the form. Context tells us whether or not the subjects of the verbs are actually teaching/working at the moment the utterance is made; this is not part of the implications of the aspect.
In both  and , the non-durative aspect is also possible; it simply places less emphasis on the duration of the actions.
……17. He had been drinking heavily, and it showed in his speech.
……18. Wendy had been working on her accounts, but she put them away when Stan arrived.
……19. He had been preparing for this for years. he was ready.
……20. The president had been speaking for three hours when Martin fell asleep.