Past Perfect and Non-Continuous Verbs in English and the Octopus
The other day, I was teaching an English class, when a student said something like:
“Today has been the first day that my children went to school alone.”
I corrected him, saying that it should be, “Today was the first day that my children went to school alone.”
Why? He asked. I tried to get away with the reasoning that the first instance just sounds really bad, and no native English speaker would ever say it that way. This student is tenacious and inquisitive, however (he’s probably looking up tenacious right now).
We continued talking about it, and the fact that these sentences are possible:
This has been the first time a man has walked on the moon.
Today has been a terrible day.
So what makes “Today has been the first time” wrong?
I couldn’t figure it out during the class, and told the student I’d get back to him on the reason. In exchange, he gave me a handy new Spanish phrase that translates to something like, “I’m going to have to accept the octopus as a house pet.” This is a great way of saying that, as ridiculous as something seems, you’re going to have to take someone’s word for it (remember, it’s a Spanish phrase).
So, I discussed it with my wife, thought about it, and did some reading. Turns out that “has been” is a Non-Continuous verb in a perfect tense. What does that mean?
A Non-Continuous verb refers to an abstract idea, usually something you cannot see. “Been” is the past participle of To Be, one of the most abstract verbs there is. In the Past Perfect tense, it looks like this:
I have been | We have been
You have been | They have been
He/She/It has been
In the Past Perfect, non-continuous verbs tell us that something started in the past and continued up until now.
Your octopus has been in the house for two weeks.
The octopus has been attacking the dog for ten minutes.
This octopus has been eating the neighbor’s cats.
So, this octopus has been causing problems that have continued at least until the moment the sentences were written. However, when my student’s children when to school for their first time, the action began and ended, essentially, when it started.
“But,” I can already hear my student asking, “why is it OK to say ‘This has been the first time.'”
Here’s what I’ll say, although I can’t find any texts to back me up. If someone is saying “This has been the first time my children have walked to school alone,” the context, for it to be correct, would have to be two people talking about it as it is happening. In other words, the action of them going to school for the first time is still happening as the sentence is being said. Still, it doesn’t sound quite right. If in doubt, I recommend using the simple tense.
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