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Present perfect (and past simple) by Sarn Rich - 2

Problems inherent for the adult learner

Of course there are senses in which the theories we've looked at have proved quite satisfactory, both intellectually and practically, to many people, but it does not follow that everyone will understand the somewhat imprecise terms ('subjective', 'remote', 'relevance'…), and so grasp the theories, in quite the same ways. This can lead to general disquiet about the present perfect altogether - for learners and teachers. Commenting on this - and perhaps incidentally contributing to the disquiet - Swan says

'The differences between the present perfect and the past simple are complicated and difficult to analyse, and the rules given in grammars are not always very clear or accurate.'

Further difficulties arise from L1/L2 contrasts. Tense and aspect systems do not correspond in meaning or in form, and are not even consistent in their lack of correspondence, but overlap in some areas and not in others. Learners have to try to forget what feel like natural patterns, and reconceptualise relationships in unfamiliar ways.

There are confusing variations in native speaker usage, American being markedly different from British (ibid:495), while Estuary English features what might be called 'the bald past participle':

-You done that, didn't you?' - 'No. I never.'

The auxiliary can be difficult to catch, and reproduce, in authentic speech, being subject to both weakening and elision in the question form:

-I've written loads.
-What've you done?
-You finished?
-Been out?

Grasping the form can be a struggle, since the perfect is composed of both an inflected auxiliary and frequently an irregular participle (Yule 1998:56).
Time references may be confused (* indicates a typical mistake):

* Have you had good weather last weekend?

* I've seen Mary yesterday.

* I'm waiting for three quarters of an hour.

* We have this flat since 1955.

* I always liked English people. (Swan 1980:493-495)

Swan tries to reassure his reader with the comment:

'Fortunately, mistakes in the use of the present perfect are not usually serious.' (ibid:493)

but of course this fact gives the learner a disincentive to learn or practise, tempting fossilization.

Teaching - Why?

Maybe, as Swan implies, learners can get away with mistakes with the present perfect, but it is such a common form for native speakers that it is worth getting right, for ease of comprehension and to provide a sense of distinctions in meaning (in all four skills) and generally so that learners can make a better impression in their speaking and writing.

There is not the space here to rehearse the historical arguments for and against the teaching of grammar (Thornbury 1999:14-25). Suffice it to say that much resistance to grammar is based on a misconception. It is talked about as if it were a limiting factor, a strict Latin master, holding up fluency and so at loggerheads with communication. In fact, grammar is there to aid communication by improving accuracy and therefore mutual comprehension. Accuracy here does not mean language complying with rules, but language complying with what we want to convey - the crucial distinction being between 'grammar as fact' and 'grammar as choice' (Lewis 1986:41-44). Properly understood, grammar aids mutual comprehension and hence promotes fluency.

Grammar teaching may also be opposed on the grounds that such knowledge is best acquired 'naturally' rather than through instruction (Krashen and Terrell 1983). Certainly explicit teaching rarely works as quickly as we would like - or as some teachers or learners expect - but as long as we take this into account we can certainly devise worthwhile approaches to deliberate grammar teaching.


Learning can be seen as a process of noticing and re-noticing (attending to input), structuring and restructuring (sorting and working through hypotheses) and finally proceduralising (organising knowledge for communication) (Batstone 1994). In general this is reflected in the classroom with grammar taught initially as product - learners manipulating forms and gathering meaning - and then as process - aiming to 'develop the skill of exploiting grammar to express meanings as clearly as possible in language use' (ibid:79). In some approaches process comes first, when it acts as a kind of needs analysis, to focus the noticing that goes on in the product stage, and so to improve subsequent use and understanding. The following process stage then 'stretches' the learners' interlanguage by encouraging them to 'operate at the outer limits of their current abilities' (Long 1989:13 in ibid:78). Grammar may also be taught as skill, involving learners in the conscious examination of grammar as a tool for conveying meaning (ibid).

If we begin with noticing in relation to the present perfect, arguably we hit a snag. What exactly are learners supposed to notice? The form is relatively straightforward but the function is quite obscure. We may wish, as Batstone says,

'to increase their active engagement with grammar as a functional device for signalling meaning' (ibid:66)

but we cannot agree on what the meaning is!

Two approaches are open to us. The first is to proceed with either the retrospective or the current relevance theory, or both at once, as if there is no problem, guiding learners to discover the rules for themselves or presenting them to save time. Here, use will probably be made of explanatory timelines. This is something like the 'grammar at 30 000 feet' described by Batstone, the broad level of idealizations, as opposed to grammar at 10 000 feet, the level of finer details.

This has the apparent virtue of theoretical clarity, but can run the risk of practical confusion. We have looked at some problems already. Learners are in danger of meeting instances which do not fit 'the rule', and being unable to adequately restructure their knowledge to accommodate them, and so faltering irretrievably on the way to proceduralisation. In fact a smooth decent to 10 000 feet from either of the standard explanatory theories may not be possible; for, if the above analysis is correct, they are not so much flying at 30 000 feet as operating in a kind of theoretical flight simulator.

It is important, then, to draw hints rather than rules from these theories (Lewis 1986:19), and timelines should be seen in this light. Depending on how satisfied we or our learners appear to be with these hints we may or may not follow the second approach, which is to encourage learners to hypothesise for themselves about the present perfect.

The theory of indefinite past provides the scaffolding for learners to be able to do this. Rather than expecting them to switch from past simple to present perfect when aware of 'looking back' or 'current relevance',

'It suggests that when talking about past events, we use the past tense only if the time of the event is defined' (Tregidigo 1984:287)

How much easier to grasp! Following this straightforward descriptive rule the learner can work out his/her own explanatory theory (either consciously or 'getting a feel for the language'), in the process of using the language.
For this to work the learner needs to practise the present perfect in ways that reflect authentic use, for example in;

- Roleplays in which learners ask each other what's the matter and explain what has happened.
- Memory games involving moving or changing items: learners say what has changed (Appendix A).
- Job interviews: learners ask about work and life experience, then shift to the past simple for specific details.
- Activities involving chunks like 'Have you ever…?'
- Chat with the teacher.
- Looking at authentic or semi-authentic texts (Appendix B), rather than decontextualised minimal pairs.

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