The Grammarphobia Blog

When participles are perfect

Q: Driving myself nuts over this sentence: “Not having heard of it, I was confused.” What is “having”? We have a present participle followed by a past participle! Please help this struggling English grammar teacher.

A: In that sentence, “having” is an auxiliary verb (sometimes called a “helping verb”). When combined with a past participle—like “heard”—it forms what’s called a perfect participle: “having heard.”

You may be puzzled because you’re trying to figure out what tense this is. In fact, we aren’t dealing with tenses here but with participial phrases. And participial phrases act as adjectives, not verbs.

In your sentence—“Not having heard of it, I was confused”—the phrase “not having heard of it” modifies the subject, “I.”

This might be better explained with a simpler sentence: “Stopping to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “stopping” is a present participle, and the participial phrase “stopping to chat” modifies the subject, “Tom.”

If we use a perfect participle instead of a present participle, the sentence looks like this: “Having stopped to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “having stopped” is a perfect participle, and the participial phrase “having stopped to chat” again modifies “Tom.”

You can use either version, of course—with a present participle or a perfect participle. So why use a construction that sounds more complicated?

A perfect participle, as in “having stopped to chat,” serves to emphasize not only the sequence of events but also their causal relationship. The “having” part underscores the fact that Tom’s stopping to chat not only preceded but also caused his being late for work.

Verbal phrases that include some form of “have” are called “perfect” because their action is complete rather than ongoing. This is true whether the verbal phrase functions as a verb (“have heard”) or as a modifier (“having heard”).

The perfect tenses of the verb “hear” are “have heard” and “has heard” (present perfect); “had heard” (past perfect); “will have heard” (future perfect); and “would have heard” (conditional perfect).

The perfect infinitive is “to have heard,” and the perfect participle is “having heard” or, in its negative form, “not having heard.”

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