Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 34, Issue 3, pp 223–256 | Cite as

Reference time and the English past tenses

Research Article


We offer a formal account of the English past tenses. We see the perfect as having reference time at speech time and the preterite as having reference time at event time. We formalize four constraints on reference time, which we bundle together under the term ‘perspective’. Once these constraints are satisfied at the different reference times of the perfect and preterite, the contrasting functions of these tenses are explained. Thus we can account formally for the ‘definiteness effect’ and the ‘lifetime effect’ of the perfect, for the fact that the perfect seems to ‘explain’ something about the present, and that the perfect cannot presuppose a past time point. We explain why perfect and preterite can sometimes be interchangeable, and we offer a solution to the ’present perfect puzzle’. We explain the unacceptability of notorious examples of the perfect such as *Gutenberg has discovered the art of printing. We give greater definition to the familiar notions of ‘current relevance’ and ‘extended now’.


Past tenses Perfect Preterite Reference time Lifetime effect Presuppositions Update 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King’s College, LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Oxford UniversityOxfordUK

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