Category Archives: present perfect verbs

What can we learn from the grammar part of the SAT to help with writing?

The SAT is a test used to determine whether a student is well prepared for college-level work. Part of the SAT tests students on grammar by asking students to replace poorly worded sentences with error-free ones or to pick out the erroneously used word/s from several choices.

boy writing on a window bench

The SAT uses the same kinds of errors over and over. If high school students have trouble with these kinds of errors, younger children are likely to also.   Students need direct instruction on these kinds of errors.Children are not likely to recognize these errors or know how to fix them without instruction.
Some of the errors I see on almost every SAT include:

  • Run-on sentences and sentence fragments. Often, one clause is started, but it is interrupted by a second clause and the the first clause is not finished. Or a fragment is so long it seems to be a sentence. Students need to recognize that every clause needs a subject and a verb.
  • Subject-verb agreement. This means that a singular subject should be paired with a singular verb, or a plural subject should be paired with a plural verb. For example, “Her homework is done” (both subject and verb are singular) or “Each of the children does well” (Each is the subject, so it is paired with a singular verb, does).
  • Third person singular present tense and present perfect tense verbs. Such present tense verbs usually have an “s” at the end. Some irregular present tense verbs have an “es” such as “goes” and “does.” Present perfect third person verbs use “has” as the helping verb, not “have.”
  • Pronoun-antecedent agreement. This means that when a pronoun is used, it must agree in number and in gender with the noun it replaces. For example, “I saw the girl. She [the girl] was walking toward me [I].” Problems arise when the pronoun is not near its antecedent noun or when there are intervening words (or clauses). Children who struggle with pronoun-antecedents might have inference problems. I have also encountered many ESL students who mix up “he” and “she” and “him” and “her.”
  • Verb tense problems. In general, paragraphs are written in the same verb tense, but there are good reasons to use more than one verb tense. However, the writer can’t change tenses willy-nilly.
  • Dangling participles. Sentences which start with “Hearing the door open” should be followed immediately with the person who is doing the hearing.
  • Parallel structure. This means two or more ideas in the same sentence should be worded using similar grammar. In the sentence, “I like skipping rope and to play soccer,” the sentence should be rewritten to say either “skipping rope and playing soccer” or “to skip rope and to play soccer.” These are simple examples, but the SAT usually uses examples which are more difficult to discern.
  • Each, every, any, nothing, none, everything, and anything are singular pronouns and take singular verbs. I tell students to mentally insert the word “one” after these words to remind them that these words take a singular verb.
  • Verb/prepositions pairs. Some verbs are always followed by certain prepositions. This can be hard because some verbs when used one way take one preposition, but when used another way take a different preposition. Hearing these pairings used correctly for years is enough for most students to figure them out, but for other students, these pairings must be memorized.
  • Words which sound similar. Since their meanings differ, they cannot be substituted one for the other. And some words which sound the same can be spelled differently depending on the meaning. They cannot be substituted either.
  • Apostrophes. Possessive nouns use apostrophes but possessive pronouns do not. Once children learn about apostrophes, they confuse simple plurals which don’t need apostrophes with possessive plurals. Lots of practice is needed for correct use of apostrophes to sink in.
  • Their, there, they’re; it’s, its; and too, to, two befuddle students. Like apostrophes, learning when to use these words takes lots of practice.

Why is it important to master grammar? Spell check can find some of these errors, but not all. Or it can suggest what words are probably in error without suggesting a way to fix them. You need to be able to find your errors.

But more importantly, when we write, we are trying to impress someone with our ideas. The grammar should be invisible. If grammar draws attention to itself because of errors, you have lost some of your power to impress others. For children, that could mean a lower grade on an essay, but for an adult, that could mean being rejected by a university or by a potential client.

How to use the present perfect verb tense correctly

The present perfect verb tense is often not used by student writers.  Or if it  is used, it is often used incorrectly. Yet it is an important verb tense to master in speaking and in writing.

What is the present perfect? It is the verb tense which combines the helping verb “have” or “has” with the past participle of a verb: I have eaten; she has slept; you have written.

Many times there is a double problem in using this tense, and that is choosing the proper past participle. Regular verbs in English use the past tense as the past participle and create no problems for students: I have jumped; he has watched; they have learned. But the verbs we use the most in English—be, do, have, go, come and hundreds more—use an irregular past participle: I was but I have been; you gave but you have given; it did but it has done.

Another problem is knowing when to use this verb tense. It has three uses:

  • To describe something that began (or didn’t begin) in the past but is still going on
    o Jack has pitched since the first inning.
    o My friends have studied for the test for many hours.
    o I have not slept since 6 a.m.
  • To describe something that happened many times (or didn’t happen at all) in the past.
    o She has eaten there many times.
    o They have not studied in the library all semester.
    o We have always followed his advice.
  • To describe something that happened (or didn’t happen) in the past when it is not important to know exactly when it happened.
    o Yes, I have traveled to Seoul.
    o No, I have not eaten baklava.
    o Aunt Marie has made many quilts.

Children born to well-educated English speaking parents learn to use this verb tense correctly the way they learn everything else about English—by listening to and mimicking their parents. For English speaking children whose parents do not use this verb tense, learning it is hard, as it is for ESL students.

One almost painless way to learn the present perfect is to read, read, read. Good writers use this verb tense correctly unless they are mimicking the dialog of a character who is poorly educated. With enough reading, students will pick up subconsciously how this verb tense is formed and might discern when to use it. However, most children will need this verb tense explained, and will need to practice it over and over, year after year, in school.

Although grammar is less stressed in schools today, a good teacher or tutor will notice if her students speak or write with the past tense when they should be using the present perfect tense. That teacher will offer a lesson on this verb tense. One or two lessons usually isn’t enough. The present perfect needs to be reinforced with practice. You can find practice activities online and in grammar handbooks.

Why is it important to master the present perfect verb tense? After all, some languages have existed hundreds of years without such a verb tense. Can’t a student write, “Yes, I went there several times,” instead of writing, “Yes, I have gone there”? The meaning is clear both ways.

As I tell my students, people you want to impress as you get older—the person who interviews you for college acceptance, or the person who reads your admissions essays, or your professors, or the person who interviews you for a professional job, and the parents of your future spouse—might judge you by how you use English verb tenses. These people are not reading or listening to hear if you use certain verb tenses, but they will know immediately when you use a verb tense incorrectly, and your status might drop in their eyes. Not fair, you say.  Maybe, but that’s the way of the world.

Correct use of the present perfect verb tense is a sign of a well-educated English-speaking person.