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Present perfect (and past simple) by Sarn Rich - 3


Many learners are happy with the explanatory theories we have considered, and will apply them successfully. But as teachers we need to be aware of their theoretical and practical shortcomings. Problematic though the present perfect/past simple distinction may be, thanks to the indefinite past rule this is one area particularly suited to learners working through rules for themselves.

'An attitude which encourages the forming of hypotheses, the examination of language data, and the re-formation of the hypotheses - all work done by the students co-operatively under the guidance of the teacher - are characteristics of a genuinely communicative approach to language teaching.' (Lewis 1986:164)

Perhaps too often we regard the learner's familiarity with alien linguistic systems and conceptual categories as a problem, a source of 'negative interference'. But if encouraged to turn this resource to the problems discussed here we may find the learner producing more satisfying explanatory theories than any we have encountered so far.
By the way, she may have just wanted to cheer me up, but after the lesson Agnes apologised. 'Sorry.' She said 'I think I've started to understand.'
In all quotations, emphases are as in the original.

In reply to the objection that this sentence form is a special case, Lewis himself insists on a 'principle of general use': 'A general rule describes the characteristics which are shared by all uses of the form.' (1986:18-19) and specifically that 'The explanation of the use of a form in a conditional sentence is exactly the same as that of its occurrence in any other utterance' (ibid:149).

Lewis proposes that the distinguishing 'before now' quality of the present perfect 'is clear if we contrast the pair: o Did you visit the Tower of London? o Have you visited the Tower of London? 'The first refers to a single event seen by the speaker as in some way remote - in this case remote in time. The second suggests Have you ever visited the Tower of London (before now)? It relates to the speakers 'perception of the action from present time, the point NOW. From now the speaker is looking back.' (1986:76)

But Tregidgo is quite right. However 'remote' the event might be in the first utterance, it is certainly somewhere in the past - in which case the speaker must surely be looking back to it, no less than the speaker is looking back in the second utterance.

(Incidentally, Lewis' introduction of ever and (before now) to his interpretation is leading, and naughty. He himself insists that a change in form results in a change in meaning (ibid:21).)

Quirk et al. (1972:91) also hold to the 'current relevance' position. Yule, however, sees this as just one instance of the 'connection between situation of utterance and marking a retrospective view of an event' (1998:67).

Yule suggests that in the uses of the present perfect where the verb is stative (live, believe, own, love..., as opposed to dynamic: eat, fall, go… ) 'there is an implication…that the pre-existing situations being described will continue':

- He has believed in Allah all his life.

- We have known Fred for many years.

- I have owned this car for two months.

- She has hated him since she first met him.


But again, the implied continuation is conveyed lexically, by elements outside the present perfect phrase. Remove all his life and, if anything, the implication is that belief in Allah is one of a number of beliefs that the person has been through. We could turn the next sentence into

- We have known Fred on and off for many years, but he's a stranger to us now.

Unembellished I have owned this car suggests that it does not belong to me now and that it has passed through others' hands since it did. And She has hated him could quite satisfactorily be completed with and she has loved him but now they're just friends.

Timelines can be helpful, but may be dangerous if their function as analogies is forgotten (Lewis 1984:170-176). They may also be very different and so potentially confusing.


Batstone, R. 1994. Grammar. Oxford University Press
Comrie, B. 1976. Aspect. Cambridge University Press
Krashen, S. and Terrell, T. 1987. The Natural Approach. Pergamon
Lewis, M. 1986. The English Verb. An Exploration of Structure and Meaning. Language Teaching Publications
McCoard, R.W. 1978. The English Perfect: Tense Choice and Pragmatic Inferences. North-Holland
Svallberg, A. 1986. Teaching Tense and Aspect: A Systematic Approach. E.L.T. Journal 40/2:136-145
Swan, M. 1980. Practical English Usage. Oxford University Press
Thomson, A.J. and A.V. Martinet 1980. A Practical English Grammar. Oxford University Press
Thornbury, S. 1999. How to Teach Grammar. Pearson Education
Thornbury, S. 1997. About Language. Cambridge University Press
Tregidgo, P.S. 1984. How far have we got with the present perfect? E.L.T. Journal 38/4:286-289
Yule, G. 1998. Explaining English Grammar. Oxford University Press

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