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The perfect in English has many faces:

(1) I have done my homework.

(2) I had already done my homework by then.

(3) If I had done my homework yesterday, I would come with you.

(4) Having done my homework two days ago, I can join my friends.

(5) He is said to not have done his homework yesterday.

(Please ignore the awkward examples.)

Is there a unified semantics for the English perfect that would account for all of its possible uses?

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    A great deal depends on what the predicate is, and what the context is. But, basically, there are four perfect senses/usages proposed by McCawley, all stemming from the same concatenation of circumstances. – jlawler Apr 18 '15 at 17:59
  • "... all stemming from the same concatenation of circumstances" - what do you mean by that, sir? – user132181 Apr 19 '15 at 5:58
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    I mean the presupposition of present relevance and its superimposition on a past reference. This has different effects on different kinds of predicates; using the perfect on a punctual predicate (She has arrived) indicates a change of state that is presumed to be still in effect unless otherwise contradicted, for example. But using the perfect on a stative predicate without further reference (I have lived in Seattle) does not. These are, respectively, McCawley's Stative/Resultative sense and his Existential sense. That's an example of what I mean. – jlawler Apr 19 '15 at 13:47
  • @jlawler thank you very much for the thorough explanation, sir. I understand it now. – user132181 Apr 19 '15 at 18:07
  • You might find this on English Language Learners helpful: What is the perfect, and how should I use it?, especially § 3.1 Grammatical meaning and 3.2 Pragmatic meaning. §3.1 is mostly based on McCawley; §3.2 is based on this paper by Nishiyama and Koenig. – StoneyB on hiatus May 19 '15 at 12:51
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I think it was Longacre that suggested the English perfect can not be fully analyzed as an aspect, but must be understood to carry a role in discourse: namely, it marks background information that leads to the present foreground events. In this it plays a role similar to the progressive, where the progressive typically marks concurrent background events and the perfect marks preceding background events. It also contrasts with the simple past in that the simple past is generally foreground events in the past while the perfect is background information for the present.

Such an explanation could serve to assign the perfect a monosemous (or bisemous, if you want to separate lexical and pragmatic) meaning.

It's possible that the above is responsible for the fact that something recognizable as "the perfect" is very common in world languages, but its semantics vary widely between languages. Perhaps it is a common element for marking background information regardless of specific semantics. But that is just top-of-my-head conjecture.

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There are several ways to approach this question. But first we need to question the very concept of monosemy vs. polysemy. They are a stretch even when it comes to the lexicon let alone very abstract constructions such as 'perfect' in English. What would that single meaning even look like? How would be multiple senses related distinct? How is it represented in the competence of native speakers? How do non-native learners acquire a similar competence and how do they represent the perfect meaning?

When you approach the meaning of the perfect (as opposed to the present, past and future perfects) you could approach it 1. from a logical perspective on time, action, sequence and completion or 2. from a functional perspective dealing with things like experience, knowledge, perspective. You will also need to deal with modality.

To deal with the perfect on its own, we first need to find its usage and this will obviously be embedded in the context of tense, modality and communicative function. However, the question is, when all else is stripped away, are we left with some distinct, single aspectual meaning (like completion) that is the perfect's unique contribution to every case of use.

My go to approach here is Lakoff's (and others') treatment of things like 'over' and the existential 'there' construction. He showed that they have several related semantic cores (a case of radial categories) which motivate but do not straightforwardly predict their various uses. (While people have found fault with details of the analysis, the key point still stands).

I suspect that a careful analysis of the 'perfect' would arrive at a similar conclusion. There are several related highly abstract meanings related to experience, completion and even sequence that motivate its meanings in all (or most) of the various contexts of its use but that any individual use cannot be predicted by them because of the influence of all the context.

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  • So, should I focus more on pragmatics, that is? – user132181 Apr 19 '15 at 8:41
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    Pragmatics has a role. It all depends on why you're asking the question. Are you interested in aspectual theory? Or do you need to explain it to learners? You need to look to context and use in both cases, but for learners, I would recommend not even trying to start with some abstract meaning. – Dominik Lukes Apr 19 '15 at 8:44
  • I'm a nonnative speaker (I've been learning English for over a decade now) interested in linguistics and the structure of English in particular. The fact that the perfect is so "all over the place" seems strange to me, especially considering that my native language doesn't have any constructions even remotely similar to the perfect. I'd like to find something that would explain its nature at some basic level instead of presenting a bunch of rules of thumb (of course if this really is possible). Hell, I believe I use the perfect exactly when it's needed, but I can't understand it, still. – user132181 Apr 19 '15 at 9:26
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Well, I can suggest how to work out the answer. Take two examples using a given form of "have" in the syntactic environment [S NP __ ... ]. Assume what is in the position NP, the subject, makes no difference. The two examples have A and B following the form of "have", say it's "have", so they look like this : [S NP have A ] and [S NP have B ]. The grammatical categories of "have" in the two examples should depend only on the categories of A and B.

Construct the example [S have [X A or B ] ], where X is some category we don't know about yet. Is the new example acceptable? Suppose it is. Then because the category of a grammatical conjunction of two phrases is the same as the categories of both the two phrases, A and B must have the same category X, whatever that is.

So the categories of "have" in the two examples must the the same, since they depended only on the categories of A and B.

Since the interpretation of a phrase is a function of the pronunciation and the syntactic category of the phrase, the interpretations of "have" in the two environments we are considering must be the same.

So, it all depends on the grammaticality of [S NP have [ A or B ] ]. If it's grammatical, the "have"s mean the same. If in general, we can find grammatical ways of conjoining the complements of the various "have"s of interest, they must all have a single interpretation.

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The 'have' parts (clauses) in all of your example data have one thing in common: The predicate (do, the homework) is (with)in perfective aspect. Syntactic theory accounts for this with a feature that's there or not (a switch that's on or off), as a functional (= not heard) "head" in a "phrase" around (= "holding") the predicate's phrase (a Verb phrase, in turn holding the object's nominal phrase).

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