Verb tense is one of the more complex issues of English grammar, and usage experts can speak at length on the subtleties of the subject. Luckily, the GMAT doesn’t plumb too deeply into the nuances of tenses, but there are a few things beyond the simple past, present, and future that GMAT students should know. Perfect tenses are an example of a common situation in Sentence Completions: students can often use them correctly by ear, but if their ear fails them, they have no rules to fall back on. The two perfect tenses that the GMAT likes to test are the present perfect and the past perfect (there is also a future perfect tense, but it’s rarely used on the GMAT).
The present perfect tense is formed by using the helper verb “has” or “have,” followed by the main verb. The choice of “has” or “have” is simply a matter of picking the one that agrees with the subject. The form of the main verb is called the past participle, but knowing that term isn’t important in order to form the tense correctly. (Some grammar terminology is necessary in order to discuss the rules and concepts, but it’s completely irrelevant to the exam itself since you only have to *use* rules correctly on the GMAT, not name them.) The following examples are in the present perfect tense.
(a) I have visited the Pantheon in Rome.
(b) She has been president of the University since July.
(c) The football team has boasted a winning record for two years.
(d) All your professors have earned advanced degrees in their subjects.
“Have visited,” “has been,” “has boasted,” “have earned.” The four sentences all use the present perfect tense, but they do so in two different ways, which represent the two different situations on the GMAT for which the present perfect is appropriate.
Something that has been completed in the past at an unspecified time.
Examples (a) and (d) fall into this category. In (a) we know that the visit to the Pantheon is complete, but we don’t know when it happened. The time is not specified. It could have been 10 years ago or last week. In (d) we have the same situation. The action (earning their degrees) is complete, but the time is unspecified. We have no information about when these degrees were earned.
Something that began in the past and carries into the present moment.
Examples (b) and (c) fall into this category. In (b) we have a situation (being president) that began in the past (July) and carries into the present moment (she’s still president). Likewise in (c), the football team’s winning record began in the past (two years ago) and carries into the present (it still has a winning record this year).
The past perfect tense is formed by using the helper verb “had,” followed by the main verb (also a past participle, just as with the present perfect). Here are some examples.
The weather had been unseasonably warm until the blizzard struck.
I had abandoned the search for my watch when I discovered it in the drawer.
Jeff had thought that nothing could be worse than Ewoks, but then he saw Jar-Jar Binks.
Prior to the discovery of a hidden fingerprint, the detective had suspected another man.
“Had been,” “had abandoned,” “had thought,” “had suspected.” The four examples all use the past perfect tense, which is necessary in the following situation:
Speaking of something that happened in the past before another event, also in the past.
This is sometimes referred to as the “double past.” So for example, in (a) we have unseasonably warm weather not only in the past, but before a blizzard which is also in the past. In (b), the abandonment of the search is in the past and also prior to the discovery of the watch, another event in the past.
A second way of describing the past perfect is to contrast it with the present perfect. As discussed above, one of the uses of the present perfect is to describe something that began in the past and carries into the present moment. By contrast, the past perfect describes something that began in the past and *doesn’t* carry into the present moment because it’s been cut off by some intervening event. So in (c) we can say that Jeff had a belief that began in the past (about Ewoks) that doesn’t carry into the present because of the intervening event of seeing Jar-Jar. In (d) the detective’s belief in another man’s guilt began in the past but doesn’t carry into the present because of the intervening event of discovering the fingerprint.
Thus when a Sentence Completion question gives you answer choices that contain the present perfect or past perfect tenses as options, ask the following questions: Do I have an event completed in the past at an unspecified time? Do I have an event that began in the past and carries into the present moment? Do I have an event in the past that happened before another event also in the past? Do I have an event that began in the past that doesn’t carry into the present because of some intervening event? If the answer to either of the first two questions is yes, you want the present perfect. If the answer to either of the second two questions is yes, you want the past perfect. If the answer to all four questions is no, then you’re off the hook with perfect tenses, and looking for something else.