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Present perfect (and past simple) by Sarn Rich

Identification and analysis

Budapest, 1992. I thought the lesson was fine, until Agnes threw down her pens, wailing, 'I'll never understand the present perfect!' Such sentiments are natural: having grasped the past simple, the learner sees little point in the present perfect. Swan's description - 'almost a kind of present tense' (1980:493) - indicates more uncertainty than it dispels, and, as we shall see, neither of the standard explanatory theories is entirely satisfactory.

The retrospective theory

According to Lewis,

'The most important thing to understand about "the present perfect", or present retrospective, is that it is a present form. It is always essentially grounded at the point NOW, the moment of speaking.' (1986:76)

There are problems here. Consider:

-'When you've finished that we can get on.'

The form is present perfect, but it is not 'grounded in the point Now', in fact all we know is that the deed will not be done, if at all, until some point in the future.

Tregidgo discusses two more problems, introducing the example

- 'I've brought you a cup of coffee.'

'Here we may well feel that the speaker is not so much looking back as looking around, or even forward into the future. Moreover, what about the ordinary past tense? Does not that look back from present time?'

Clearly, the distinction is not as cut-and-dried as Lewis suggests. Other contrasts he and Yule propose may be true in some sense, but are not really enough to get one's teeth into. In what precise sense is I saw the Taj Mahal more 'remote', more 'objective' (Lewis 1986:68, 74), or less suggestive of the speaker's perception or experience (Yule 1998:54) than I've seen the Taj Mahal?

The current relevance theory

Of Swan's two explanations for the present perfect, one is
'to talk about past actions and events which are completely finished…when the past events have some present importance.' (1980:493)

This corresponds to three of Comrie's four uses:

'Perfect of result: in which a present state is viewed as being the result of some past situation.

Experiential perfect: where a situation has occurred at least once during some time in the past leading up to the present

Perfect of recent past: the past situation is very recent'

(1976 in Thornbury 1997:83).

Examples might include:

-Oh, my stomach. I've eaten too much!

-We've had some great seminars.

-Bob's fainted!'

There are problems here, too. As Tregidgo says, 'The actual degree of current relevance implied by the present perfect varies enormously' for instance being more obvious in I've brought you a cup of coffee than in I've seen the Taj Mahal' (1984:287). More importantly, current relevance is not exclusive to present perfect utterances. As an example Tregidgo suggests a mother greeting her son on his return from school with the words I saw your teacher today (1984:287). In fact, whatever we say is presumably relevant to the current situation (or we think it is) - otherwise we wouldn't say it. As Lewis says 'Clearly a speaker would not look back on an event which was irrelevant to him!' (1986:78)

Swan's and Comrie's other use of the present perfect,

'to talk about actions and situations which began in the past, and which have continued up to the moment when we speak (or just before)' (Swan 1980:493)

is exemplified by:

-I've lived in Greece since 1976.

-We've known each other for a long time.

-'You look hot' 'I've been running'

-I've often wondered where she gets her money. (ibid:493)

This is also problematic. For what makes these utterances fit the description is not the perfect aspect, but the meaning conveyed either lexically (since 1976, often) or by the progressive aspect, or the rest of the sentence (where she gets her money). Remove these elements and the force of the utterances changes, in fact leaving the description hardly more applicable than it would be to the equivalent utterances in the past simple.

The present perfect cannot be comprehensively distinguished from the past simple in terms of looking back, current relevance or continuity with the present. Even apart from problems specific to each theory, none offers a very convincing explanation of the following:

'We do not use the present perfect to explain the origin or cause of something that people already know about.


- Some fool's let the cat in.

- 'Who let the cat in?' - 'I did.'

'…with expressions of finished time (like yesterday, last week, in 1965, when…, then, three years ago), the present perfect is normally impossible.

'…the present perfect is not used when we are thinking about a particular finished point of time (even if we do not mention it).


- Have you seen 'Romeo and Juliet?' (=Have you ever seen it?)

- Did you see 'Romeo and Juliet?' (Did you see the production on TV last night?) (Swan 1980:495)

This points to another theory, which states that we use the past simple when there is a definite time reference, either stated or established by context, and the present perfect when there is not (Allen 1966:152-8).

Properly speaking this is not a theory of the same kind as those already discussed, being descriptive rather than explanatory: it says what we do but it does not say why we do it. As a descriptive theory it is certainly accurate: attempted counterexamples containing present perfects and definite past references do not really work. (Tregidgo successfully tackles McCoard (1978) on this point.), and past simples without can sound odd. But taken on its own the theory of indefinite past treats the present perfect/past simple distinction as merely morphological rather than semantic, as if I've eaten breakfast is just the form taken by I ate breakfast at 8.00 when the time reference is absent.

If what we want is an explanatory theory which can account for these surface features, and not just offer a description of them, then we have not yet found it. For there seems no clear reason why a definite time reference should make a past action or event any less relevant to the present, nor why our view of it should be any less retrospective.

However, it turns out that this spanner in the works of the explanatory theories becomes

- a useful tool for the learner and in the classroom (Discussed below).

- a pointer to an alternative hypothesis (elaborated in the Appendix).

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