The Preterite and Perfect in Middle English

by Morgan Macleod (University of Ulster)

The Proto-Germanic tense system, consisting only of a present and a preterite, was augmented in Old English by the addition of a periphrastic perfect. This perfect had already been grammaticalized to the point where it could be used even with intransitive verbs, e.g. þin folc hæfð gesyngod ‘your people have sinned’ (Mitchell 1985: I, 289). However, it was still possible to use the preterite to express similar temporal content, e.g. Ic heold nu nigon gear[…] þines fæder gestreon ‘I (have) now held your father’s property nine years’ (ÆLS I.21.42). For many Old English authors the preterite was in fact the preferred mode of expression; previous research on a sample of Old English texts found that the new periphrastic perfect was used only in 26% (95/360) of the cases where it would have been possible semantically (see Macleod 2014). However, little previous quantitative work exists on the subsequent development of the perfect and preterite towards the modern system, in which the two categories are paradigmatically opposed and can seldom be interchanged without altering the meaning of an utterance.

A preliminary investigation of the preterite and perfect in Middle English was performed using the Helsinki Corpus (Rissanen et al. 1996). Such a corpus, small in size yet selected for balanced content, was ideal for a form of analysis involving manual review of entire textual passages. The methodology was based on that of Macleod (2014): texts from the earliest Middle English period, 1150–1250, were analysed to identify all situations for which a present perfect would be an appropriate representation, and the relevant verbs were identified either as preterites or as perfects. This research revealed an abrupt transition between Old English and Middle English; in Middle English, not including texts that represent late copies of Old English works, the periphrastic perfect was used in 94% (258/274) of cases. It is possible that the earlier stages of this transition took place within OE, where they were obscured by the relatively homogeneous nature of the textual record. In addition, some ME authors seem to show awareness of a new opposition between the preterite and the perfect, e.g. Orm 197 Þe þridde god uss hafeþþ don / Þe Laferrd Crist onn erþe, / Þurrh þatt he ȝaff hiss aȝhenn lif ‘The Lord Christ has done us the third good on earth in that He gave His own life’. Here the same situation is described with a preterite to position it within a historical narrative and with a perfect to highlight its continuing relevance, showing a clearer contrast than seems to have existed in Old English.

Although the majority of Middle English examples seem to conform to the modern pattern, a small number of exceptions remain, a fact noted by previous authors such as Mustanoja (1960) and Fischer (1992). One factor involved in these exceptions may lie in the variation observed (e.g. Elsness 1997) among varieties of English in their tense preferences: constructions such as American English I already ate can be paralleled in Middle English examples such as Ich ne seh him neauer ‘I never saw Him’ (St Juliana 100.15), while examples such as mare wunder ilomp ‘greater wonders (have) happened’ (Ancrene Wisse 32.9) may show an even greater tolerance for the preterite than would be possible in present-day American English. This variation may best be interpreted as a difference not in the temporal meaning of the forms involved, but in the pragmatic presuppositions created by their use, in keeping with the approach of Portner (2003).

Some Middle English examples also involve the use of a past tense under a present-tense verb in a way that would be of marginal acceptability in Modern English. This can be seen in examples such as Brut I.384.7424, Ich þonkie mine Drihte[…] þet he swulche mildce; sent to moncunne ‘I thank my Lord that He sent such mercy to mankind’. Although much research on the sequence of tenses (e.g. Abusch 1997; Gennari 2003) has tended to focus on cases in which the matrix verb is in the past tense, it is known that sequence-of-tense phenomena are subject to cross-linguistic variation in their construction and interpretation. Examples such as the above may reflect an underlying difference between Middle English and Modern English in their sequence-of-tense rules.

This preliminary investigation has found a high degree of similarity between Middle English and Modern English in their use of the perfect even at a very early date, in sharp contrast to the patterns found in Old English texts. While the explanations proposed here may help to explain the small number of apparent counterexamples, more work is needed to substantiate these proposals. In particular, a larger data sample might provide further examples to clarify the factors influencing speakers’ choice between the perfect and the preterite, while a more general examination of the sequence of tenses found in Middle English would be essential to establish the details of the system obtaining at this period and the ways in which it might differ from Modern English. Further research in this area has the potential to illuminate many currently obscure details of the Middle English verbal system.


Abusch, Dorit, 1997. ‘Sequence of tense and temporal de re’, Linguistics and Philosophy 20, 1–40.

Elsness, Johan, 1997. The Perfect and Preterite in Contemporary and Earlier English, Berlin: de Gruyter

Fischer, Olga, 1992. ‘Syntax’, in Norman Blake (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 207–408.

Gennari, Silvia P., 2003. ‘Tense meanings and temporal interpretation’, Journal of Semantics 20 35–71.

Macleod, Morgan, 2014. ‘Synchronic variation in the Old English perfect’, Transactions of the Philological Society 112, 319–343.

Mitchell, Bruce, 1985. Old English Syntax, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon.

Mustanoja, Tauno F., 1960. A Middle English Syntax, Helsinki: Societé Néophilologique.

Portner, Paul, 2003. ‘The (temporal) semantics and (modal) pragmatics of the perfect’, Linguistics and Philosophy 26, 459–510.

Rissanen, Matti, et al. (eds.) 1996. The Helsinki Corpus of English Texts, Helsinki: University of Finland, electronic.