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After reading the definitions of perfect past, perfective past, preterite past, and pluperfect past, I am confused as to what their distinctions are. They all are past tense forms indicating a completed action. Some of the articles I read even said there is overlap in their usage. Should I worry about these distinctions?

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2 Answers 2

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All the times you mention are in the past, but many languages, including English, care about more specific aspects of this past.

In a nutshell, preterite past describes things that happened, perfect past describes things that were happening, while pluperfect past describes things that had happened. Perfective past, the way I've seen it used, is synonymous with preterite past. There is also the present perfect, which also describes the past.

Because I think the more "complicated" forms are easier to explain, I'll go through them in reverse order.

Let's say you are telling about something in the past that happened around the time X.

Present perfect doesn't care about X at all, but just denotes something took place before the present. If you tell me you have met the pope, there's no way for me of telling when this occurred without further questions. Sentences "I have studied the mysteries." or "Have they eaten?" are not concerned about precisely when these things might have happened, just that they were in the past.

Pluperfect past, also called past perfect, tells you what happened before X. Consider "I had just left the house." or "They had seen this many times before.". These sentences don't take place at the time you left your house or when they saw whatever they saw, but after. We use this to give background information.

Perfect past goes on to describe what happened during the time X, to set the stage if you will. In the sentence "I was walking in the park when the phone rang.", the walking happens in the perfect past.

Preterite past describes things that happened right at the time X. In the sentence above, the phone rang in the preterite past.

So to answer your question:

You should worry!

Or rather, you should think about whether to worry or not!

Some languages take great care not to confuse these concepts, some have just one verb forms that cover all the pasts. The English "I walked in the park when the phone rang." might work in some dialects or varieties of English, but to my (admittedly foreign) ears it sounds a bit off, or maybe old-fashioned (?).

English basically have three verb forms, exemplified by 'see', 'saw' and 'seen', two of which concerns the past, and forms the different kinds of pasts by adding words around them. Some languages, like Spanish, have more verb forms for the different pasts. "I saw" would translate to "Yo vi", while "I was seeing" translates to "Yo veía"¹

Some languages use even more past times. There is a time that's in the past, but after X, and there is nothing stopping you from giving this time its own verb form. In English, you could express this bu the (comparatively clunky) "I was about to eat when you came".

In the end it's up to you, but I think you'll have a more interesting conlanging time if you at least give it some thought!

¹) I know the 'yo' isn't necessary, I just think it might be clearer for those not very familiar with Spanish.

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The most important thing to recognize is that many of these terms are language-specific. The word "preterite" is mainly used in describing Germanic languages, for example; in Ancient Greek, which has a very similar tense, it's called the "aorist".

So for a concrete example, let's use Latin. It's got several different past tenses that we can poke at using various different terms.

In Latin, each "tense" (tempus) actually involves two components: the time and the aspect. The time indicates the reference point of the action: past, present, or future? The aspect indicates the action's relationship to that reference point. This means you can have several different verb tenses (or "TAMs" if you prefer) that all relate to past time, but have different aspects.

In Latin, there are three aspects, which actually correspond very nicely to English verb forms. The imperfective (from the Latin for "not finished"), also known as the progressive or continuous aspect, indicates that something is happening over a period of time or happens frequently: "I am eating". The perfect (from the Latin for "finished"), also sometimes called the perfective aspect, indicates that the event is over and done with and you're talking about the aftermath of it: "I have eaten". And the simple aspect, also known as the aoristic or (confusingly) the perfective, treats the event as a single point in time: "I eat". (Unlike in English, you can't combine these in Latin; there's no one-to-one equivalent to "I have been eating", for example, to talk about the aftereffects of a long-term action.)

These are the foundation of the tense system:

  • The imperfect tense is past imperfective, "I was eating". It indicates an event happening for some time in the past.
  • The aorist or preterite tense (from the Latin for "passed") is past simple, "I ate". It indicates an event happening at a single point in the past.
  • The perfect tense is present perfect, "I have eaten". Note that the reference point is actually the present! Remember, the perfect aspect focuses on the aftereffects, and the aftereffects of the past are happening now: I have eaten (in the past) so I'm no longer hungry (in the present).
  • The pluperfect tense (from the Latin for "beyond finished") is past perfect, "I had eaten". This is talking about the aftereffects (perfect aspect), but those aftereffects themselves happen in the past.

This is how Latin decides to break things down. (It also has all of these aspects for the present and future times as well, giving tenses like the future perfect, talking about future aftereffects: "the show starts at nine? I will have eaten by then".) But other languages can, and do, handle things differently! And, annoyingly, there's no consistent standard for how these terms are used.

Some people, for example, use the term "perfective" for what I've called perfect aspect. Other people use it for what I've called simple aspect. The word "aorist" comes from the Greek for "undefined", so some people apply it to whatever the most "default" tense or aspect is in their language. And since "preterite" literally just means "passed", it's a convenient label to slap onto whatever past tense is lacking its own name.

What matters most is that you understand the distinctions you're making in your language, and give them labels that you (and hopefully the audience too) can understand.

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  • "The aspect indicates the action's relationship to that reference point." Note that in linguistics generally, "aspect" doesn't refer to anything relating to reference points, but about the internal temporal structure of an event. (Viewed from the outside as a whole, viewed from the inside as it takes place, focusing on the beginning or end, etc.)
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 14, 2022 at 15:00

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