Tense Confusion: Present/Past Perfect vs. Present/Past Perfect Progressive

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Kreacher

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Hi Forum,

I'm glad I've come across this forum and I hope you guys can help me out of my confusion. In advance I want to kindly apologize for any idiosyncracies concerning my English. I'm an university student of English at Freiburg, Germany and although I've been learning English for more than 12 years now there may still be subtle or not so subtle mistakes.

I will have to take an exam on monday which involves translation from German into English. I'm allowed to use dictionaries, but finding the right tense choice is a thing which still troubles me from time to time. When I was at school I thought I had mastered the tenses, now at university we get way deeper looks into the tenses and it has started to confuse me a bit.

I'd like to ask about the correct use of the Present Perfect tense vs. Present Perfect Progressive and, accordingly, Past Perfect vs Past Perfect Progressive.

I think I roughly know how to use Present Perfect. It's used when the duration of an action doesn't matter but the result of an action. "I have cleaned the car" --> result: it is clean now.

If I want to express duration, I'd use the Present Perfect Progressive. "I have been cleaning the car for 2 hours" (and still haven't finished cleaning).

Well, now I had to read that also the present perfect can express duration with "since" or "for"..

Example: I have had this car for two years...

That kinda is a contradiction for me, because I always thought that duration is expressed with the progressive form.

Compare: It has rained a lot. Look at the puddles (result) vs. It has been raining for 10 hours (duration).

Moreover, I have kind of learned by heart that whenever I want to express an action that started in the past but is still ongoing today, I should use the Present Perfect Progressive.

Thus: I have been playing the piano for 17 years. Comparing this sentence with the example from above (I have had this car for two years), what would change if I said "I have played the piano for 17 years"?

This affects past perfect and past perfect progressive accordingly.

I'd be so happy if I could get competent answers here!

Thanks a lot in advance!
Kreacher
 

5jj

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Welcome to the forum, Kreacher.

I am afraid there is no simple answer to your question.

The problem is that both the progressive form and perfect forms can suggest some form of duration. Some verbs, such as LIVE, also have within their meaning the idea of duration.

So, there are times when both non-progressive and progressive forms are possible, with little practical difference in meaning.

Some course books and elementary grammars can sometimes give the impression that only one form is possible in any give situation. This is not true.
 

Kreacher

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Thanks for answering!

But, it is not possible to say "I have been having this car for 2 years" instead of "I have had this car for 2 years", right? Even to me the first one sounds wrong.

Is there a difference in meaning between saying "I have been playing the piano for 2 years" vs "I have played it for 2 years"? Or are these interchangeable?

I just translated a text from German into English and there was a situation where I wasn't sure about the tense choice. Now I don't know if you know any German, so I'll try to explain roughly what the text said.

The text is about something that happened in the past... So definitely past tense is involved. But then there was a situation expressing duration in German and I wasn't sure whether to express this through past perfect or past perfect progressive.

My translation was:

Maria Altmann is now 90 years old and the rightful heir of the painting. For almost 8 years (duration) the american lady had been fighting for the restitution of the famous portrait and of four other paintings, which her uncle Ferdinard Bloch-Bauer bequeathed to her.

I wasn't sure if I could have as well used past perfect: For almost 8 years she had fought for the restitution of the famous painting... But assuming that duration (for 8 years) is involved, I went for past perfect progressive.

Present perfect progressive or present perfect is not an option here since the action is back in the past. So, no "has been fighting" or "has fought"...

:-(
 
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5jj

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But, it is not possible to say "I have been having this car for 2 years" instead of "I have had this car for 2 years", right? Even to me the first one sounds wrong.
The first sounds unnatural, but it is nothing to do with the tense. We don't use the progressive aspect for HAVE when it has the stative meaning of 'possess'. We could say, "I have been having problems ... for two years'.
Is there a difference in meaning between saying "I have been playing the piano for 2 years" vs "I have played it for 2 years"? Or are these interchangeable?
The first may suggest the limited duration or the limited duration of the playing, but I don't think there is a big difference between the meanings of the two forms in this sentence.
Maria Altmann is now 90 years old and the rightful heir of the painting. For almost 8 years (duration) the [STRIKE]a[/STRIKE] American lady had been fighting for the restitution of the famous portrait and of four other paintings, which her uncle Ferdinard Bloch-Bauer bequeathed to her.
Both forms are possible.If the fighting ended at or close to the time point of the utterance, the non-progressive form is more likely. If the fighting continued through the time point, the progressive form is more likely.
 

englishhobby

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Maria Altmann is now 90 years old and the rightful heir of the painting. For almost 8 years (duration) the aAmerican lady had been fighting for the restitution of the famous portrait and of four other paintings, which her uncle Ferdinard Bloch-Bauer bequeathed to her.


If the fighting ended at or close to the time point of the utterance, the non-progressive form is more likely. If the fighting continued through the time point, the progressive form is more likely.

Can we say: For almost 8 years (duration) the American lady fought for... (as a finished action in the past)?
 

Kreacher

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Can we say: For almost 8 years (duration) the American lady fought for... (as a finished action in the past)?[/B]

I'm not entirely sure but I don't think that simple past can be used with duration like that... If anything I'd use she has/had fought or has/had been fighting for 8 years...

I've never used simple past to express duration. But I'm not a native speaker.. I'm just thinking of "She fought for years" which doesn't sound wrong to me and still it expresses duration. Thus it confuses me even more... Oh dear!
 

5jj

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Can we say: For almost 8 years (duration) the American lady fought for... (as a finished action in the past)?[/B]
So much depends on the context. Here are some ideas.

Mrs Gruntpugh died recently at the age of 90. She will be remembered for her series of court actions against her cousin, Lady Postule over the Bloch-Bauer paintings.. She fought for eight years before reaching an settlement with ...
. ('had fought' is possible, but not necessary; 'before' makes the sequence of events clear. The past perfect progressive form is unlikely here, in my opinion; the fight ended before she died.)

Shortly before her death in 1999, Mrs Gruntpugh finally gained possession of the B-B paintings she had fought for eight years to get back from her cousin. (The simple past is not impossible, but the past perfect is more likely. The progressive form is possible; it would emphasise the duration.)

Mrs Gruntpugh had been fighting for eight years when she heard the news of .. (The progressive form is more likely here. It shows the continuation of the action up to the very moment when she heard the news)
 

englishhobby

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I'm not entirely sure but I don't think that simple past can be used with duration like that... If anything I'd use she has/had fought or has/had been fighting for 8 years...

I've never used simple past to express duration. But I'm not a native speaker.. I'm just thinking of "She fought for years" which doesn't sound wrong to me and still it expresses duration. Thus it confuses me even more... Oh dear!

I am also sometimes confused about duration, but, strangely, the problems you've described in this thread seem less confusing to me than some others related to duration. I think you should attach more importance to the "quality" of the verb itself, not only its tense. This information about stative and dynamic verbs may help:

Stative Verbs

So, if we have a stative verb like "have", we can't use it in Present Perfect Progressive (or any other progressive form), because progressive forms are not usually used with stative verbs. E.g. I've had this car for five years. OR I've always loved Betty.

I had a different problem. Once I asked the people on the forum to check the following sentence. <Spot, my dog, ran away .> I was looking for him for two hours, but I couldn't find him, so I had to go back home alone. (perhaps the sentence was a bit different, but I remember for sure that I used Past Continuous to express duration, to emphasise how much time I spent looking for my dog. To my surprise native speakers corrected my sentence: <...> I looked for him three hours, ..... That's why I thought that in your case Simple Past might also be used.
 
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Kreacher

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Thanks a lot! Giving examples helps to get through to all that, I hope.

But:


Mrs Gruntpugh died recently at the age of 90. She will be remembered for her series of court actions against her cousin, Lady Postule over the Bloch-Bauer paintings.. She fought for eight years before reaching an settlement with ...
. ('had fought' is possible, but not necessary; 'before' makes the sequence of events clear. The past perfect progressive form is unlikely here, in my opinion; the fight ended before she died.)

You said: The past perfect progressive is unlikely here because the fight ended before she died.

But why would using the past perfect progressive mean that the fight went on even after her death?

She had been fighting for 8 years before reaching a settlement with....

I don't understand why this would mean the fight went on after her death. Like you said, it would emphasise the duration? I think that's the knot in my brain here...

I remember from school that the past perfect progressive (she had been fighting) is used to express that something had started earlier in the past and continued happening until a new event set in.

"He had been travelling for 3 months when he ran out of money"
 

Kreacher

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<Spot, my dog, ran away .> I was looking for him for two hours, but I couldn't find it, so I had to go back home alone. (perhaps the sentence was a bit different, but I remember for sure that I used Past Continuous to express duration, to emphasise how much time I spent looking for my dog. To my surprise native speakers corrected my sentence: <...> I looked for him three hours, ..... That's why I thought that in your case Simple Past might also be used.

I think the problem with Past Progressive here is that if you use Past Progressive (was looking) you're describing a period of time that has no beginning and no ending. Your focus is on the action itself. We were told that Past Progressive is usually used for describing actions that were going on (no matter when they started) when suddenly a new, shorter event set in.

"We were sleeping soundlessly when the earthquake happened"

I'm not sure if you can use past progressive + for + time... "I was looking for him for 3 hours"
 

5jj

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Mrs Gruntpugh died recently at the age of 90. She will be remembered for her series of court actions against her cousin, Lady Postule over the Bloch-Bauer paintings.. She fought for eight years before reaching an settlement with ... .

You said: The past perfect progressive is unlikely here because the fight ended before she died.
But why would using the past perfect progressive mean that the fight went on even after her death?
I did not say that it would. I meant to suggest that the non-progressive form was more appropriate for the completion of the fight by a time before he death.
She had been fighting for 8 years before reaching a settlement with....

I don't understand why this would mean the fight went on after her death. Like you said, it would emphasise the duration? I think that's the knot in my brain here...
I said that the progressive form was unlikely. After thinking more about it, I should perhaps have said 'less likely, in my opinion'.
I remember from school that the past perfect progressive (she had been fighting) is used to express that something had started earlier in the past and continued happening until a new event set in.

"He had been travelling for 3 months when he ran out of money"
That is one common use of the form, but it is not the only use of it. Depending on the verb and the context, the non-progressive form can also often be used for this idea. As I said in post #2, there is no simple answer to this. In post #7, I attempted, not very successfully, to suggest when one form might be more likely than another. I should have remembered my own words, "Some course books and elementary grammars can sometimes give the impression that only one form is possible in any give situation. This is not true."

The fact is that there are no hard and fast rules here. There are situations in which one form is more likely than any other for most native speakers. There are situations when one form is unlikely for most native speakers. There are also situations when two or more forms are equally likely. There are few absolutes here.

It seems to me that you have a pretty good idea of how we use the various tenses and aspects.If you stick to what you know, and accept that native speakers may at times say things that seem 'wrong' to you, you will not make any serious mistakes. Indeed, in my opinion, you will usually produce forms that will seem natural to native speakers.
 

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We were told that Past Progressive is usually used for describing actions that were going on (no matter when they started) when suddenly a new, shorter event set in.

"We were sleeping soundlessly when the earthquake happened"
Not always:

While I was sleeping, the children were playing in the garden.

Here we have two situations of some duration going on at the same time.
I'm not sure if you can use past progressive + for + time... "I was looking for him for 3 hours"
You can. I wasted some precious time yesterday. I was looking for John for three hours when I could have been working. I didn't realise he was sailing with his brother.
 
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Kreacher

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It seems to me that you have a pretty good idea of how we use the various tenses and aspects.If you stick to what you know, and accept that native speakers may at times say things that seem 'wrong' to you, you will not make any serious mistakes. Indeed, in my opinion, you will usually produce forms that will seem natural to native speakers.

Thank you a lot! I hope I'll master all the subtle differences some day.

You can. I wasted some precious time yesterday. I was looking for John for three hours when I could have been working. I didn't realise he was sailing with his brother.

So, does that mean that "englishhobby" 's answer wasn't wrong then? "I was looking for my dog for 3 hours but I couldn't find it"

Maybe I should stop thinking about all that. The more I think about it the more confused I seem to get.
 

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So, does that mean that "englishhobby" 's answer wasn't wrong then? "I was looking for my dog for 3 hours but I couldn't find it"
My personal view is that that is possible, but I don't wan't to discuss that here. A fresh thread is the place for that.
Maybe I should stop thinking about all that. The more I think about it the more confused I seem to get.
It is possible to think about this too much. I don't believe in accepting the rather superficial 'rules' that sometimes appear in some course books and grammar books for learners. On the other hand, an attempt to explain precisely each and every tense usage that one encounters is doomed to failure, in my opinion. Even with full context, it is not possible for us to know exactly what was in a speaker's mind when s/he uttered certain words.
 

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We were told that Past Progressive is usually used for describing actions that were going on (no matter when they started) when suddenly a new, shorter event set in.

"We were sleeping soundlessly when the earthquake happened"

I'm not sure if you can use past progressive + for + time... "I was looking for him for 3 hours"

Yes, I know that from grammar books, too.
And what if there was NO new shorter event which interrupted my looking for the dog. What if I just want to emphasize the duration of the verb "look for" in the past. In my language (Russian) there are (at least) two ways of showing duration in the situation with a lost dog - 1) I can use one verb form to emphasise the duration, the fact that I took time looking for the poor dog, not just stating a fact that it took me three hours (it could be equivalent to the Past Continuous form "was looking for", but English Grammar says I can't use it as there is no interruption (((, and 2) I can use a "shorter" verb form just to state the fact that it took me three hours (without putting stress on whether it was a long time for me or not). That's why I felt like Past Simple alone wouldn't be enough to express the following idea:

I looked (long) for my dog for three hours but I couldn't find him. So I had to return home.
OR
I looked for my dog for three hours (which is a long time) but I couldn't find him. So I had to return home.

Perhaps the best way to emphasize the duration of "look for" in this case would be: I looked and looked for the dog...?

Sorry I seem to be going off the subject (though discussing duration is also a part of this thread, I'd better start a new thread).
 
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5jj

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Sorry I seem to be going off the subject (though discussing duration is also a part of this thread, I'd better start a new thread).
As I suggested in my last post.
 
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