Saturday, September 11, 2010

the present perfect

This post title has been hanging around in my drafts since August 2006, when the friend who's been known on this blog as Foundational Friend mentioned some AmE bugbears as potential fodder for the blog.  The offending AmE sentence was:
Didn't you do that yet?
 And she said that in BrE it would have to be
Haven't you done that yet?

There was an echo of this when a native German speaker read a draft copy of a chapter of my new textbook, where my example (illustrating how we understand eat in some contexts to mean 'eat a meal') was:
Did you eat yet?
Now this sentence was basic to my linguistic education, as it was often used by one of my (AmE) professors/(BrE) tutors to illustrate palatali{s/z}ation (d+y becomes 'j' sound) and the extent to which a phrase can be phonetically reduced and still understood:  Jeet yet?  

But my German correspondent informed me quite insistently that my question was ungrammatical in English and should be Have you eaten yet?  I said something along the lines of "Who's the native speaker here?". But, dear reader, I changed the example, lest it put anyone else off.

A blog post on this subject by Jan Freeman spurred me to promise in public (well, on Twitter) that the present perfect would be the subject of my next post--which may help explain why I've been so long between posts.  This one (had) put me off for four years already, after all. It seemed like a lot of work.  Uh-oh, I feel a semantics/grammar lesson coming on...

So, the present perfect.  Present.  Perfect.  We use it to talk about things that (have) happened in the past, but it is itself in the present tense.  It's a past tense you say?  Look again!
I have eaten.
It's the first verb in a string of verbs that carries the tense, and this one, have, is present.  It's not had, it's have.  Of course, we can put had there, and then it would indeed be a past tense.  A past perfect, to be precise: I had eaten.

The perfect is considered to be a combination of tense and aspect.  Tense is grammatical marking of when something happened, aspect is grammatical marking of how that happening relates to time.  The perfect tells us that something is finished, but it does so from the viewpoint of a later time.  One way to visuali{s/z}e this is with a timeline.  Let's start with the past perfect (because it's the easiest one to draw a timeline for):
I had eaten by the time Don arrived:    2:00 Eating  ☚   3:00 Arriving  ☚  4:00 Speaking
In this example, 'I' am speaking at 4:00 about the state I was in at 3:00.  That state relates to an event that happened at 2:00.  In other words, I'm looking back to a time (Don's arrival at 3:00) at which eating was already in my past.

So, the perfect looks back on its event (eating, in this case) from a later vantage point (Don's arrival).  When we use the present tense, the speaking time is the same as the time that we're referring to.  So, in this case, we relate a past event to a present moment.
I have already eaten:    2:00 Eating   ☚  3:00 'already=now' Speaking
Of course, we can also do this with the future, in which case we are looking forward to a time when we'll be looking back at a time when we (from the 'now' perspective) will do something.  (And those are little fingers pointing, in case you can't tell.)
 I will have already eaten when Don arrives:
    2:00 Speaking  ☛☛☛☛☛☛ ☛4:00 Arriving  
                              3:00 Eating  ☚  4:00 Arriving
And you can put it into the progressive (I have been eating) and the passive (I have been fed) and most of the other ways in which you can play around with the form of a verb and the verb string.

So here's the story:  The adverbs already, just, and yet are taken as signals of that 'looking back from now' aspect, and in BrE they have to 'agree', so to speak, with the present perfect.  AmE has stopped caring so much about this 'agreement', which is, after all, a sort of redundant grammatical marking.  So, in AmE, you can by all means say I have eaten lunch already or I have already eaten lunch and it might sound a bit more formal, but you can also say I already ate lunch or I ate lunch already.  (If you'd like to think/comment about adverb placement, come back here.)  In general, though perhaps more in BrE than in AmE, the present perfect is used to signal recency, because it signals relevance to 'now'.  So, in either dialect, on the 10th of September 1976, one could have said Chairman Mao has died, but on 10 September 2010, we need to say Chairman Mao died (on the 9th of September in 1976).

The "death" of the present perfect in AmE has been exaggerated.  The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) reports that the BrE:AmE ratio of present perfect was 4:3 in their corpus study.  In British or American English? John Algeo reports that the perfect forms of have (have had, has had, had had) occur 1.7 times more often in BrE than in AmE.  These re not huge differences, but there's definitely a difference.  And it's been around for a while.  The Jeet yet? example mentioned above was perfectly unremarkable in my 1980s linguistics education.

Virginia Gathercole (1986) looked at Scottish and American adults' use of present perfect in speaking with young children and the acquisition of the present perfect by the children. She concluded that "Scottish adults use the present perfect construction in their speech to children much more frequently than American adults do" and "Scottish children use the present perfect construction in their speech long before their American counterparts."  Parents, of course, inevitably simplify their speech for their children.  In AmE, there's the option to simplify the past tense form to the preterit(e)* (simple past tense: ate, walked, threw) rather than complicating the syntax with the perfect (has eaten, has walked, has thrown), and parents take it.  In BrE (in this case Scottish English), that simplification option doesn't exist, and so the children are faced with the form earlier and rise to its challenge.

The conclusion I'd like to leave you with is this:  There is nothing unAmerican about the present perfect.  We can and do use it in the ways that the British do.  We just aren't restricted to it.  There is something unBritish about using the preterit(e)  with certain temporal adverbs in particular and perhaps also more generally to refer to recent-and-still-relevant events.  The difference between Did you eat yet? and Have you eaten already? is, in AmE, mostly a difference of formality, possibly also of emphasis.  However, if the two forms continue to co-exist, they might very well develop into semantically contrastive forms that signal somewhat different things.

*Preferred spelling in both dialects includes the 'e' on the end, but AmE also allows dropping of the 'e', i line with the pronunciation.  See comments (this is a postscript).

59 comments:

Me said...

"Jeet yet?"

Let Squeet!

Anonymous said...

Does this relate to the issue of the AmE preference for the bare auxiliary (e.g., "have") versus the BrE preference for a dummy participle ("have done") in situations where the intended participle is omitted?

vp said...

Q: "Have you got X?"

BrE: "I have."

AmE: "I do."

John said...

I teach English as a second language in Spain, and in the region where I live, they don't use the present perfect (ha comido - he's eaten), preferring instead to use the preterite (comió - he ate) so to them the US version sounds much more natural. The high panjandrums of Spanish at the Royal Academy of course, say it's an incorrect usage.

lynneguist said...

@Anonymous: No, that's a different thing. Both are using the perfect in that case. There's an old post about that back here, if you'd like to read/talk about that more...

There's also an old post about the contraction of have back here.

alai said...

I read this post and find it wonderful, yet all I can think is "Goodness, but those are some cute pointing hands."

mollymooly said...

It grates when a purportedly UK-English Windoze installation asks "did you forget your password?" rather than "have you forgotten your password?"

In the context of host--guest politesse, "Have you eaten?" is in my (Irish) experience a fixed expression; bolstering the aspect with "yet" or "already" sounds marked or odd.

There is something unBritish about using "preterit" instead of "preterite".

Richard Sabey said...

>The adverbs already, just, and yet are taken as signals of that 'looking back from now' aspect, and in BrE they have to 'agree', so to speak, with the present perfect. AmE has stopped caring so much about this 'agreement', which is, after all, a sort of redundant grammatical marking.

To me the use of the imperfect tense instead of the perfect in such utterances is unidiomatic (and, yes, AmE if you will) but the reason is not the use of an adverb such as "yet", it's the context of the utterances. True, the word "yet" can indicate that the speaker is saying something of present relevance, but there are other ways to establish that. If I met someone at lunchtime, and I said "Shall we find somewhere to have lunch?", and he said "I ate", that would sound unidiomatic to me even without the word "already".

I notice that you don't limit the term "tense" to verb forms formed by modifying the head verb word, but also allow verb forms formed using auxiliaries. Do you consider "I will eat" and "I am going to eat" future tense forms?

shannon said...

I also teach ESL (in Italy) and I generally teach that there are two main ways to use present perfect. The first way, which is used in both AE and BE is when we are talking about something that has occurred "in our lives." For example, if I ask you "Have you been to China?" it's implied that I mean in your life. In these cases, both AE and BE use the present perfect and using the past simple "Did you go to China?" would be wrong and possibly misunderstood by the listener.

The second way to use present perfect is for other more specific time periods that have not yet finished (like today or this year or this week). In this case, AE will accept either present perfect or past simple (but generally prefers the past simple). How many coffees have you had today? or How many coffees did you have today? BE, on the other hand, doesn't like past simple in these cases and prefers the present perfect.

The third case (which I generally avoid teaching until students are at a fairly high level) is that of a situation where the effects are still being experienced. I.e. "I've lost my keys." (and you still haven't found them) "There's been an accident." (perhaps the people involved are still in the hospital) In these cases, AE generally prefers the past simple whereas BE again prefers the present perfect.

biochemist said...

Occasionally, but not frequently, I have heard educated adult Scots use the perfect in a sense further than Lynneguist's nice examples:

'There has been a strange occurrence here 50 years ago'

I have never heard an English person use this construction. It's distinct from the uneducated (oops, non-standard) Scottish 'he's went'. Can any Scots cast light on this?

Ambulant said...

What about when 'to eat' is used transitively? In BrE I think there is a particular difference in nuance between 'I have eaten x' and 'I ate x' which it quite hard to pin down. For example, if a parent asks a child 'have you eaten that sandwich?', this seems most often to carry the expectation that the child should have eaten the sandwich. If the parent asks 'did you eat that sandwich?', this would usually imply uncertainty over who ate the sandwich, or whether the sandwich had actually been eaten at all. I'm guessing that in AmE the second of these formulations would be used in both cases, and the sense of the prior expectation would be captured by tone and/or emphasis.

There's a certain slipperiness to the implied expectation here though, and it works differently for different verbs: 'Did you see Dave?' implies an expectation that you might have seen Dave at a specific time/place, whereas 'have you seen Dave?' implies that the speaker is not sure where Dave is.

Dougal said...

The idiomatic Edinburgh phrase is, of course, "you'll have had your tea" :-)

David Crosbie said...

For me the distinction between Did you eat? and Have you eaten? is entirely pragmatic.

There are two potentially relevant periods of time. I used to tell my students that they were UP TO NOW and BEFORE NOW. The latter is where we place the definite timing of events.

I sometimes ask questions like Did you have breakfast? because I have a definite breakfast time in mind and I make the pragmatic choice of assuming that my hearer shares my presumption.

As a British speaker, I'm far less likely to say Did you eat? in the absence of a trigger like the word breakfast. Even if I have a definite time in mind, I'm not so ready to assume that my hearer(s) have.

Yes, we do teach that British English requires a formal marking by a time adverbial. But the reality, I suggest, is that British speakers are to a varying degree unwilling to understand an unstated time reference. American speakers, by contrast are to a varying degree happy to supply that understanding.

There is here, I suggest, a very real cultural difference in speaking habits that has not yet changed British grammatical instincts. This stands in contrast to I've got echoed by You do? which used to be a grammatical difference.

In fact, my instinct is that for me Did you do that yet? is as ungrammatical now as I've got echoed by You do?. was for me when I first heard it forty years ago.

I'm not dead yet, but forty years is an optimistic future life expectancy. Still, I might eventually come to feel Did you do it yet? as grammatical.

lynneguist said...

Oh, my hands and times aren't quite lining up as intended, are they? Should've used a table...too lazy to make one now. (Hey, Blogger, make a button for inserting tables! Please!)

@moolymolly: I've added a footnote re preterit(e). With 'e' is the preferred spelling anywhere, but it was late...thanks.

@Richard Sabey: Depends on how I'm defining 'tense' whether I consider there to be a future in English. I do like to shock my students by saying that there isn't one, and that English is a past/non-past language, and there's a lot of reason to think that's true. But if your definition of 'tense' isn't locked into verb inflection, then there's no doubt that English speakers use other means to refer to future times, so if you want to define tense on a more semantic than morphological basis, then why not? 'Will' doesn't have much in the way of other content anymore.

As for perfect, there's an argument to be had about whether it itself carries tense information, apart from the tense on it. I generally teach that it's an aspect, but it's more complicated than some...

David Crosbie said...

Here is my table.

The idea is that events are represented as happening in periods which only partly correspond to real-world divisions of time.

I would place Lynne's sentences as follows:

Didn't you do that yet?
The queried event could belong either in BEFORE NOW or UP TO NOW. Lynne puts it in the former. However, like many British speakers, I have a collocational restraint that prevents me from saying this.

Haven't you done that yet?
The same question about the same queried event. But for me this is the only possibility. The word yet forces me to perceive the worried event as in the UP TO NOW period.

[I choose to see this as a period rather than an aspect partly to reflect LR Palmer's term phase, but mostly to dissociate the representation of Perfect from the representation of Progressive.]

Did you eat yet? vs Have you eaten yet?
Same as above.

But I could say Did you eat? — provided that I was thinking of an unstated time of eating located in the BEFORE NOW period.

I had eaten by the time Don arrived.
This fits into both the BEFORE THEN period and the UP TO THEN period, with Don's arrival as the reference point THEN. No need to choose, since the Past Perfect is used for both.

[The two periods are perhaps useful for considering:

I had been eating when Don came.
I had eaten at two, an hour before Don came.

The main motivation, though, is to allow for a BEFORE THEN period in hypothetical time.]

I will have already eaten when Don arrives.
This fits into the future UP TO THEN period, with Don's arrival as the reference point THEN.

[There seems no need for a future BEFORE THEN period.]

I also use a window frame and a keyhole to represent an aspectual distinction. An activity or state may last throughout the period, but if you're looking through the keyhole, as it were, you use a Progressive form.

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Crosbie said...

Here is my table.

The idea is that events are represented as happening in periods relative to NOW (the time of speaking) or THEN (a time established explicitly in the text or though unspoken assumtions).

Did you eat yet?
Have you eaten yet?
Did you eat?
Have you eaten?
These are four ways of asking about the same possible event. The purported real-time location is identical, but two are placed in the BEFORE NOW period and two in the UP TO NOW period. I personally cannot bring myself to say Did you eat yet? because the word yet compels me to view the eating as UP TO NOW. I can say Did you eat? — provided that I have in mind a definite eating time which belongs in the period BEFORE NOW.

I had eaten by the time Don arrived.
The event of eating is placed in the Past UP TO THEN period, with Don’s arrival as the reference point THEN.

I will have already eaten when Don arrives.
The event of eating is placed in the Future UP TO THEN period, also with Don’s arrival as the reference time THEN.

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

'There has been a strange occurrence here 50 years ago'

This probably comes from Gaelic, which was never the language spoken in most of Scotland but which HAS left markers in ScE.

David Crosbie said...

David Crystal recently had a thread on Present Perfect with a definite time adverbial On having done something yesterday.

Lindenwood said...

Although the intricacies of grammar are flying way over my head, I did have similar thoughts to Ambulant:

I would use "Have you eaten your sandwich?" and "Did you eat your sandwich?" to imply two different things. The former I would use to my toddler if I thought he wanted to get out of his high chair, but I need to know he'd finished his lunch. The latter I would use if I was concerned that he had given his sandwich to either his twin brother or the dog in order to appear to have finished his sandwich and get down from his high chair!!!

Since reading this post, I have been "practising" varying sentences/questions to myself, and have scientifically reached the conclusion that, in my version of AusE, I probably use the BrE version half the time, and the AmE the other half.

Julie said...

As a Californian, I know I don't automatically prefer one form over the other. There are a lot of situations where BrE use of "have" seems odd to me, but this isn't one of them.

I think I prefer "Did you eat?" if there's an implied time. If there's a buffet in the other room, and I'm considering inviting someone to leave with me, I'd probably ask, "did you eat yet?" Likewise if it's still reasonably breakfast time, I'd probably prefer the simple past.

If it's not mealtime and I'm just trying to find out whether to feed my guest, I'd probably prefer "have you eaten yet?"

Janus said...

A very interesting read, this. I find it interesting that I don’t find the AmE/preterite forms used in the article unidiomatic or jarring at all, even though I do tend to prefer the BrE/perfect forms. And this even though my native Danish (like Lynne’s correspondent’s native German) cannot possibly allow the AmE/preterite forms at all in these contexts—using the preterite in Danish/German in these cases would result in sentences that meant »Were you eating?«, rather than »Did you eat?«.

But really, we ought all to just follow the Singaporeans and just say, »Eat ready?«. Much easier. ;)

This probably comes from Gaelic, which was never the language spoken in most of Scotland but which HAS left markers in ScE.

Gaelic being, of course, a language which has only one simple past tense to express non-agentive, non-passive past occurrences.

Stephen Jones said...

I had a friend who as part of his Masters thesis sat at the British Airways desk at Heathrow checking British and American passengers use of either tense.

When I asked him for his conclusion it was "The Present Perfect should be banned."

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

Gaelic being, of course, a language which has only one simple past tense to express non-agentive, non-passive past occurrences.

Janus, the Gaelic I learned at school had simple past and present perfect, and as I remember it the present perfect form predominated. So we had "Chaidh mi do'n sgoil"-- I went to school-- and "bha mi a'dol do'n sgoil"-- I was going to school--(apologies for lack of accents. Keyboard and the years since then). Native Gaelic speakers tend to use the latter to translate into English.

That's my impression at least, and it comes directly from my North Uist originating Gaelic teacher.

lynneguist said...

I can't comment on the Gaelic, Cameron, but the English translations don't include a present perfect. They're simple past and past progressive.

Dru said...

Like Moolymooly, I'd been irritated by "did you forget your password?", but had thought it was just grammatical illiteracy by some professional computer geek. I hadn't realised it was a genuine linguistic difference.

What also intrigues me though, Lynne is your diagnosis of the perfect tense as a present tense, because the auxiliary verb is in what would be a present tense if it was being used on its own. In English schools back in the days when I was at one (c 50 years ago), we'd have been taught to think of it as a past one. Mind, we were only taught these sort of details of our own language so that we could translate it into a foreign one, 'edi', or 'j'ai mangé'. I hope I've spelt those correctly. It's (contraction for 'it was') a long time ago.

The assumption was that 'I ate', 'I have eaten', 'I did eat' are all past tenses because the event happened in the past. The tense of the auxiliary wouldn't have been regarded as relevant to the diagnosis because the whole construction was treated as cumulatively a tense of the verb 'to eat'.

I think I'd agree with Shannon and David Crosbie that to my understanding the difference between usage of the different constructions is something to do with whether the action has been completed now or might still be partially outstanding.

To 'Did you forget your password?' the answer would be, 'yes, but that was yesterday and I've remembered it now. I don't need any help any more'. To 'Have you forgotten your password?' the answer is 'yes. Please help me'.

Yet when the computer asks the question, it's obvious that the second situation is the one that applies. So as a machine, once again, it sounds stupid.

lynneguist said...

@Dru: the problem is that 'perfect tense' is a misnomer. Tenses are past-present-future--i.e. they refer to time periods. Other things like 'perfect' and 'progressive' are things that interact with tenses but are not tenses themselves. They tend to get called 'tenses' in school because they conflate the notion of verb form and tense. The first thing I have to tell my students when they start studying grammar in linguistics is that they're going to have to 'unlearn' some of the things they were taught in school. :)

Stephen Jones said...

-----"Tenses are past-present-future--i.e. they refer to time periods."-------

Well for a start there is no future tense in English. Secondly reference to past time is only one use of the 'past' tense. It is used to refer to distance, whether temporal, or social, or emotional, or from reality.

Pullum and Huddleston consider there are four tenses in English, including the two perfect tenses. Most however hold there are only two tenses, and that the perfect is an aspect, like the progressive.

Dru said...

Lynne, I think we may be cross purposes.

What surprised me is the classification of the tense that goes 'I have eaten' as a present tense of 'have' with a participle added, rather than a past tense of eat. Do all linguists agree on this, because to a non-linguist, it seems counterintuitive and elevating form over function?

Most of us, most of the time are like the man who suddenly discovered he'd been speaking prose all his life. But if the obvious answer should one ask a casual but educated language user in North America whether they thought 'I have eaten' was a past or a present tense, is that they would instinctively answer 'a present one', then I think there is a genuine difference in the way this tense is used and understood on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

To me as an English English speaker, 'I have eaten' is a statement about something that has already happened, and 'have you eaten?' is a question whether something has already happened or not.

lynneguist said...

Dru, as you'll see from the above (and even my own comments above), how to label the perfect is unsettled. But it's important to recognise that there is something present about it, and it's not just the form. In other words, there's a semantic reason why it's in the present form: it takes the perspective of the present. It's over-simplifying to see time-marking in verbs as just a matter of when the event happened, since in that case there's no reason to ever use anything but the simple past. To understand why we need the present perfect, we need to acknowledge that part of what it's talking about is in the present--i.e. it is about a present state affected by a past event. Is that any clearer?

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Crosbie said...

Dru

Perhaps even more important than what the Present Perfect can mean is the range of things it can't mean.

1. Your example of

Did you forget your password?
Yes but that was yesterday and I've remembered it now.


is a case where there is no choice. You can't say

I've forgotten my password but I've remembered it now.

2. It would be very strange to say

I've eaten yesterday

and even stranger to say

I've eaten last week.

3. Biochemist's example

There has been a strange occurrence here 50 years ago

is odd but not nearly as odd as

There has been a strange occurrence in Germany fifty years ago
or
There has been a strange occurrence in the lost city of Atlantis.

4. Although we say

I have eaten
and
I have forgotten my password

we don't say

Hitler has eaten
or
John Lennon has forgotten his password.

The cases where we can't use the Present Perfect have something in common: the absence of any link with the present (i.e. present time).

Now all these contexts that can't admit Present Perfect verb forms in English (or do so with great difficulty) can and do have passé composeé in French and similarly forms in other languages.

So your teacher 50 years ago was profoundly wrong in confusing the English present Perfect with those Past forms in other languages.

Dru said...

If I've understood this correctly, in English English, it appears that we use the form 'I have eaten' to describe something that has happened in the recent past, and which is in some way relevant to now - hence the argument as to whether to describe this as a past tense or anomalous sort of present tense. 'I have eaten' means I don't now need feeding.

We use 'I ate' to mean something that simply happened in the past, whether ten minutes ago, or 10 years ago, that has no direct bearing on the present. As it happens, with 'eat', this is more likely to be transitive than the have form, 'I ate three fish fingers'. But that's a quirk of this particular verb.

Am I also correct that the interrogative form of 'I have eaten', is 'have you eaten?' and of 'I ate' is 'did you eat?'. 'Ate you' is obsolete.

As you'll have picked up, Lynne, my limited knowledge of all this comes from learning foreign languages many years ago. These generally seem to have fewer tenses than we do and much less capacity than we do to express various permutations of passage of time or conditionality by not having as wide a selection of auxiliary verbs . In most of the ones I encountered at school, 'I have eaten' and 'I ate' would both be translated by the same tense in the other language. These would be a past one - whatever it was called or looked like in that language - confused in the case of French by the curious existence of an extra past tense that looked like 'I ate' but was not used in conversation.

The two questions I'd ask, though, are:-
a. If Americans are 1.7 times less likely to use the form 'I have eaten' than we are, and we have clear instinctive rules that tell us which 'past' tense to use, in American usage, when is the form 'I have eaten' compulsory?

Or put another way, is there any linguistic territory it occupies, apart from formality? If so, what does it express? What does it mean to a speaker of American English when he or she uses it? Which of our uses of 'I have eaten' does it occupy?

b. Is there any possibility that forms like 'did you eat yet?' and 'I already ate' arose under the influence of the substructure of other European languages spoken by first generation Americans, rather in the same manner as 'hopefully' in the sentence 'Hopefully, my parcel will arrive tomorrow' to replace 'I hope that my parcel will arrive tomorrow'?

Dru said...

Thinking further about this overnight, I think the reason this particular topic is so interesting is that this is not just a matter of the meaning of words. It's a more fundamental grammatical difference between the two dialects. The normal use of tense in one dialect, e.g. 'did you forget your password?' sounds in the other like bad grammar rather than just a difference of usage. If he is using English English as the model (probably the version he was taught), the German correspondent you mention in your original post is correct even against the native speaker of a different dialect.

Yet how many speakers of the different dialects of English are aware of this? It raises the interesting question how many others there are. We all take it for granted that the way we speak our language is the right one. We notice it when other people say or write something that sounds wrong to us, but we don't notice the things that we say that other people wouldn't.

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Crosbie said...

Dru

Since you're such a perceptive quick learner, I'm going to risk confusing you over that idea of the recent past.

Yes the British question Have you eaten? refers in practice to the recent past — but for the non-linguistic reason that we eat so frequently.

The domain of the Present Perfect is the relevant past. A friend of ours caused consternation in the English Department of Leningrad University when he said I have been married. Soviet-era grammars of English didn't recognise this use.

If you write a descriptive CV, you're likely to include statements like I have taught adults in Spain in Italy. The Present Perfect is the expression for summary of life experience. If you organise statements about your life as a narrative, you use past Simple in statements such as From 2003 to 2004 I taught adults in Spain.

The two statements above reflect different ways of organising your thoughts about the past. That's why grammarians use the term aspect. Instead of using a Past form in the CV, the supposed writer used a form which reflected the present state of accumulated experience, as viewed retrospectively though the perfect aspect.

This idea of relevant past explains why it's so difficult to use the Present Perfect when the subject is a dead person or a think that no longer exists — but not difficult at all when the subject is a very old person or thing. The Pyramids have astonished countless tourists from the time of Herodotus.

Swapnali said...

Hi Lynn,

I like your blog a lot.I am a technical writer by profession and work in a very large US-headquartered MNC. Recently I conducted a session on UK vs US English grammar for my team and your observation of UK vs US English really helped me a lot.

Thanks,
Swapnali

lekkermeisje said...

Ugh. I (AmE) have been an ESL/EFL teacher for 10 years and as such am intimately acquainted with the AmE/BrE present perfect vs simple past distinction.

Ten years ago when I first learned the usage/semantic difference it took me a while to get used to it, but now I have no problem with either construction. I understand both the BrE and the AmE without giving either too much thought.

I do have an issue with people (Latin-o-philes, mostly), acting as if English doesn't have that many verb tenses. In my opinion, a verb tense is a tense whether or not it changes the actual form of the verb or uses an auxiliary. Why in the hell is I will go not verb tense when there is Je vais aller? I find it repulsive that some people only consider it a real tense when the verb form changes, rather than when there is an auxiliary. Part of that stems from my love of the English language, and my defense of the Germanic with its use of auxiliaries in various tenses.

Once I was watching a crap German daytime talk show with a friend of mine, also from the US. We were in the Czech Republic, but he'd had several years of Dutch and German, and so understood them quite well. However, at one point, someone said something (in german) that he didn't QUITE get.

Jason was and is an extremely bright person, and his mistake was easily and quickly explained to him. However, still being a teacher, those who opposed me still left a mark.

Stephen Jones said...

-----"Why in the hell is I will go not verb tense when there is Je vais aller"-----

'Je vais aller' isn't a tense in French.

The reason we don't consider 'will go' to be the future tense is that structurally it is the same as 'can/could/may/might/should/would/etc go' Are you going to say all these are tenses or are you going to make an artificial distinction based on what happens in French and Spanish?

David Crosbie said...

If you base your idea of what a tense is on meaning rather than form, it becomes very hard to identify the tense of the verb in:

The French will have been having a holiday yesterday.

Kevin said...

I don't think I'm someone who normally gets very hot-under-the-collar about regional language differences, but like mollymooly when she wrote:

>> It grates when a purportedly UK-English Windows installation asks "did you forget your password?" rather than "have you forgotten your password?" <<

I, too, want to reply: "Yes, but that was yesterday, and I soon remembered it again, so panic over. My problem NOW is that I've forgotten it again."

There's something particularly IRRITATING to me, as a European-English speaker, about that American-English unwillingness to use the present perfect in such a circumstance. It's as if the (US) questioner -- by neglecting the nuances of the simple past v. present perfect distinction -- is demonstrating that s/he isn't really all that bothered about me and the particularities of my problem.

While I'm in "irritation mode", let me say that I also find it very hard to remain calm in the face of such claims as "Google Translate just got faster". There I want to react with "Oh, just faster. Not more accurate or easier to use, then. That's a shame."

OK, I do recognize that Google is an American company and I'm therefore disposed to make allowances and acknowledge that I do know what they're trying to say. But it still annoys me intensely when the BBC (the BBC!) writes such things as "iPlayer just got better".

(Especially when it hasn't...)

Julie said...

@Kevin: It's not that Americans "neglect the nuances of the simple past v. present perfect distinction," it's that we define them differently. If I were to use the phrase "have you forgotten your password?" it would imply "ever, in your lifetime." David Crosbie used the right phrase: "summary of life experience." "Did you forget your password?" refers to the single (most recent) incident, and implies the need for assistance. In other words, exactly what a BrE speaker would mean by the other phrase.

As for the use of "just" for the recent past, is there really a BrE/AmE difference there?

John Cowan said...

mollymooly: I find "preterit" as rebarbative as other erstwhile AmE spellings like "cigaret" and "advertize".

biochemist said...

In the recent past - Julie, a Brit would say 'it has just got better'.

We (BrE) might say 'it just got better' with some surprise, if 'it' was transformed for no apparent reason, and 'just' here is not indicating recent past, but a sort of spontaneous effect.

Or, 'it has got better' if a system has become easier to use or more efficient as the technology has improved....

Julie said...

biochemist: Okay, yes, that meaning is possible, but I would not expect it without some contextual clues, as: "It just got faster, not better." I use the present perfect for indefinite times within a bracket, not for specific events with stated times. "It's gotten better (since the last time)." "It's just gotten better" feels like a temporal dissonance.

biochemist said...

Julie, a Brit would regard 'gotten' as a dialect usage...

But as for 'just', how about 'it just exploded' or 'it just fell out of my hands' [just = simply or spontaneously], compared with 'it's just arrived' or 'it has just finished'[just = recently]. I think the first example of 'it just got better' uses 'just' in the latter sense with the former construction.

Julie said...

Yes, I know. I'm sure Lynne has written about it already. I think most Americans distinguish between "got" and "gotten." For me, "I've got"="I have." "I've gotten"="I have acquired."

And the distinction you're making can't be made in my dialect. I don't use the present perfect in that way.

lynneguist said...

Yes, I have written about 'got(ten)' back here. Otherwise, I'm letting you carry on this conversation on your own!

David Crosbie said...

biochemist

I have a feeling that just is an area where more and more British speakers are drifting towards American usage.

Perhaps it's because we see so many ads (commercials) claiming that

X just got better.

It doesn't actually bother me, for reasons that I tried to explain earlier ...

I simply don't accept that the choice of adverbial determines the use of Present Perfect or Past Simple — not in British use and not in American. I'm convinced that speakers (less often writers) make a pragmatic decision to see events as

— in the relevant past
often but not always the recent past
what I call the time period UP TO NOW

For example I say I've just seen him if I'm making a comment on something currently salient in the conversation

— at a definite point in the past
often but not always stipulated by a time adverbial
what I call the time period BEFORE NOW

For example I quite often say I just saw him when I feel as if I'm offering collateral information rather than commenting on something said

The word just changes meaning between ' in the recent past' and 'at a recent specific time'.

The difference is very slight. It depends on how you look at it — which is why grammarians use the term aspect. My time of seeing him is a point in the past which can be viewed either as indeterminate or as so clear to the speaker that he or she represents it as definite.

My contention is that this amounts to viewing the event is one or other of two time periods which in the real world overlap — except that the BEFORE NOW period excludes the present, whereas the UP TO NOW period includes it.

If you haven't done so, do please have a look at my table.

Picture seeing him as a momentary event symbolised by a cross. The difference between I've just seen him and I just saw him is the difference between placing the cross in the UP TO NOW box and putting in the BEFORE NOW box.

djweaverbeaver said...

Hello,

Proud AmE speaker here and I love to engage in "heated conversations" (ie. arguments) over differences in English usage.

This discussion reminded me of an incident between to Englishmen to which I was a witness. I hear a piercing scream from one of the guys, to which other other guy says: "What's happened?" The guy then responds: "I've broken my finger!" (Expletives omitted) I was more concerned about those sentences than about actually trying to find him some help.

To my American ears, I would never have used the present perfect in either of those sentences(Side note: "I would have never used..." also sounds perfectly fine where I live in the American South. I'm recalling a previous discussion in which many indicated that they found this construction grammatically incorrect.) I'd think that we are all aware of the fact that something that clearly happened in the past, even if it was literally two seconds earlier, and now it's over. I see the act of breaking one's finger as a one-time (almost instantaneous occurrence). There's no way this could have a relation to the present, except perhaps the resulting pain. Someone asking "what's happened" would lead me to think that they would a whole list/rundown of every thing that's happened from a given point in the past until now, hence my use of the present perfect here with the verb "to happen".

One particular hypothesis of mine is that the U.S. is a much younger country than Great Britain. Since most of the things we've built and created are recent, we have no problem completely destroying something and replacing it something completely new and different. We have very short attention spans and the collective memory of a goldfish and don't hold on to the past in the same as they might back across the Pond. I admit that this is a rather specious argument since this very reasoning could be applied to Australia, for instance, but then again, we cut our ties to the crown a very "long" time ago in comparison. Just something to think about.

Finally, this same issue exists in Spanish. In the U.S., we tend to teach Latin American Spanish, and Latin American speakers definitely use the equivalent of the present perfect ('pretérito perfecto' or the preterit perfect) a lot less. When it is used, it is used in a very similar way to the AmE usage. I began learning Spanish during my time in Germany from Spaniards, so I learned the Spain Spanish rules in which certain words automatically trigger the present perfect such as when say this morning, today (literally 'this day' in Spanish), this week, this month, this year. When I returned to the U.S. and, mind you, the teacher was from Chile, she kept trying to tell me how wrong I was whenever I applied this rule and she was completely unaware of the Spanish usage. Not to mention, many U.S. textbooks incorrectly refer to it as the 'presente perfecto', a direct translation of English, but no such "tense" exists in any serious Spanish grammar.

David Crosbie said...

djweaverbeaver

There's no way this could have a relation to the present

On the contrary, his finger is still broken. A year later with the fracture healed, he'll be obliged to say I broke my finger back then.

David Crosbie said...

This morning my wife asked me to open an email and leave it on screen for her. I replied
I just did — something I would never have said when I was younger.

I don't find it useful to say that my grammar has changed. I've simply adopted a different stock linguistic response to a stock situation. In my (British) grammar I just did was always a possibility — but one that in the past I didn't choose.

biochemist said...

David Crosbie - when you were younger you might have said 'I've just done that [for you]'?

David Crosbie said...

Indeed I would, biochemist. I suspect that I would have done well into middle age.

Anonymous said...

Reading this a little after the fact, unfortunately, but just wanted to point out that Australian English seems to have gone the other way: the present perfect is taking over functions which uncontrovertibly call for the preterite in BrE. For example, a police commissioner speaking about a death from the recent 'planking' craze:

"He has tragically lost his footing and fallen to the ground below"

(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1387272/Planking-claims-victim-Acton-Beale-falls-balcony-death.html)

One of my lecturers has a theory that this is a shift from preterite-always to present-perfect-always, with the US being more conservative (as is often the case) and Australia being most advanced, with the UK somewhere in between ...

Elian said...

Do the phrases "Have you ever gone to France" and "Have you ever been to France" mean the same to the American perspective and, if they do, which one is more commonly used in AE?
In the same way, would "He has gone to France" mean exactly the same as "He left for France", and hence is still in France right now; whereas "He has been to France" implies that he's already back from his trip.
what if you say "Paul went to France"? Does the meaning sound kind of more ambiguous, and then will basically depend on the context implied, as long as one can either understand that Paul is already back from France or that he's still there? What do you think?

lynneguist said...

'Have you ever gone to France?' is a bit odd for the reasons you imply. You'd only ask it if you weren't in France, and in that case you'd probably use 'been to'.

Anonymous said...

"He has tragically lost his footing and has fallen" I have heard described in the UK as being in the 'footballer's tense', because most of us first came across it being used by soccer players when interviewed on TV.
It seems to be a working class thing.

Neil Rashbrook said...

Have you eaten breakfast vs. did you eat breakfast: The former suggests to me that the option to eat breakfast is still available. Presumably in AmE this is indicated via the addition of yet.

Did you forget your password: What really annoys me is Windows XP's Add/Remove programs dialog{ue?} which says "Please wait while the list is being populated". Not only does the word "being" sound superfluous to me here, but in fact the list is clearly not being populated, which is why the message exhorts me to wait for it to be populated in the first place. (By comparison, Windows 7 does populate its equivalent window incrementally.)