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The Formation and Use of the Perfect-Progressive Aspect in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 7/29/2013

The present-progressive aspect expresses incomplete or ongoing actions or states that began in the past and continue into a specific time in the future. This article explains the formation and use of the perfect-progressive aspect of verbs in both the present tense and the past tense in English.

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    All forms of the perfect-progressive aspect in English include some form of the verb have followed by the past participle been and then a present participle. Perfect-progressive aspect verb phrases in the passive voice all include the present participle being after the been followed by a past participle. The following verb chart outlines the verb phrase patterns for the perfect-progressive aspect:Perfect-Progressive Aspect For example:

    • The monkey has been throwing the banana. (active present perfect-progressive)
    • The monkey had been throwing the banana. (active past perfect-progressive)
    • The monkeys have been throwing the bananas. (active present perfect-progressive)
    • The monkeys had been throwing the bananas. (active past perfect-progressive)
    • The banana has been being thrown by the monkey. (passive present perfect-progressive)
    • The banana had been being thrown by the monkey. (passive past perfect-progressive)
    • The bananas have been being thrown by the monkeys. (passive present perfect-progressive)
    • The bananas had been being thrown by the monkeys. (passive past perfect-progressive)

    Note that have is the simple present tense of the verb have for all forms except the third person singular, which is has. The simple past tense of the verb have is had for all persons and numbers. For a list of some irregular English past participles, please download the printable supplement English Irregular Verbs: Simple Past Tense and Past Participles. Also note that the perfect-progressive aspect is closely related to the perfect aspect and the progressive aspect.

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    Using the Present Perfect-Progressive Aspect

    The present perfect-progressive aspect expresses and emphasizes the consequences resulting from a previous incomplete or ongoing action or state. The previous incomplete or ongoing action or state began in the past and continues into the present but may or may not continue into the future. Take for example the following four sentences:

    1. The cow snacks on the grass. (simple present)
    2. The cow is snacking on the grass. (present progressive)
    3. The cow has snacked on the grass. (present perfect)
    4. The cow has been snacking on the grass. (present perfect-progressive)

    The first sentence The cow snacks on the grass express a general fact about the eating habits of the cow without any indication of time. The second sentence The cow is snacking on the grass expresses an ongoing action that had begun in the past, is continuing in the present, and will continue into the future; the cow began snacking on the grass in the past, is still snacking in the present, and will continue to snack in the future. The third sentence The cow has snacked on the grass expresses an action that began in the past but continues up to the present; the cow snacked on the grass in the past and presumably is continuing to snack in the present. The fourth sentence The cow has been snacking on the grass expresses an ongoing action that began in the past, continue into the present, and may continue into the future; the cow snacked on the grass in the past, continues snacking in the present, and may continue snacking in the future.

    The perfect-progressive present aspect is most often used in sentences that express actions that occurred recently and actions that continue up to the present. For example:

    • She has been feeling ill lately.
    • The grass is wet because it has been raining.
    • The students have been studying verb aspects all week.
    • He has been writing for two years.

    Present perfect-progressive sentences cannot contain adverbials that express specific times in the past or future such as yesterday, last week, tomorrow, and next month. Present perfect-progressive sentences can contain adverbials that express unspecific times in the past or present times such as today, now, just now, and for years. Present perfect-progressive sentences often contain prepositional phrases that begin with for and since and adverb clauses that begin with since to express duration. For example:

    • The baby has been crying a lot today. (correct)
    • *The baby has been crying a lot tomorrow. (incorrect)
    • My daughter has been playing in the yard for three hours. (correct)
    • Your son has been dancing since he was two. (correct)
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    Using the Past Perfect Progressive Aspect

    The past perfect-progressive aspect expresses and emphasizes the consequences resulting from a previous incomplete or ongoing action or state. The previous incomplete or ongoing action or state began in the past and continues in the past until a specific time. Take for example the following four sentences:

    • The burglar stole the potatoes. (simple past)
    • The burglar was stealing the potatoes. (past progressive)
    • The burglar had stolen the potatoes. (past perfect)
    • The burglar had been stealing the potatoes. (past perfect-progressive)

    The first sentence The burglar stole the potatoes expresses the single completed action of the burglar stealing the potatoes. The second sentence The burglar was stealing the potatoes expresses an action in the past that progressed over a period of time and eventually ended; for example, the burglar stole the potatoes on a number of occasions but later stopped or was in the act of stealing the potatoes but then was caught by the cook. The third sentence The burglar had stolen the potatoes expresses an action in the past that led up to another action also in the past; for example, the burglar stole but then returned the potatoes when caught by the cook. The fourth sentence The burglar had been stealing the potatoes expresses an ongoing action that began in the past and continued into another specific point in the past; the burglar was stealing the potatoes when the cook caught him in the act.

    The perfect-progressive past aspect is most often used in sentences that express actions that continued for a duration of time in the past and actions that caused other actions in the past. For example:

    • The man had been hiking when the cougar attacked.
    • My grandmother had been waiting for service for almost an hour.
    • Espen was exhausted because he had been running.
    • Because she had not been going to class, my roommate failed the quiz.

    Present perfect-progressive sentences cannot contain adverbials that express times in the future such as tomorrow, next month, in two days, and this coming year. Present perfect-progressive sentences can contain adverbials that express times in the past or and unspecified times in the present such as today, yesterday, just now, and for years. Present perfect-progressive sentences often contain adverb clauses that begin with because and when to express an interruption in time. For example:

    • The baby had been throwing up yesterday. (correct)
    • *The baby had been throwing up tomorrow. (incorrect)
    • He had been writing short stories for years when he finally made it big. (correct)
    • The woman had been sleeping when the doorbell rang. (correct)