Present perfect (and past simple) by Sarn
Rich - 4
Appendix - A
personal view of the present perfect (and past simple)
years ago I received a call from a friend. She was hoping
for a place on a TEFL Certificate course, and she had a problem.
'Help me' she said. 'I can't get my head round the present
perfect.' Easy, I thought. I was wrong. 'But everything has
current relevance' she protested. 'Otherwise we wouldn't bother
saying it; and everything we talk about that's happened in
the past must be retrospective - or else we wouldn't know
Fortunately the present perfect didn't come up at the interview,
but the question remains: Why do we sometimes use the present
perfect instead of the past simple? Neither of the standard
theories will do - for just the reasons my friend suggested.
Maybe we should change the question: Why do we sometimes use
the past simple instead of the present perfect?
This might feel like looking at things in the wrong order.
We are used to beginning with present simple, and continuous,
then past simple, and continuous, then present perfect...
In 'The English Verb' Lewis (1986) actually describes the
present, past and perfect as the First Form, Second Form and
Third form. This order looks like a hangover from Latin. Latin
has no auxiliaries, and so the grammarians who tried to fit
English to classical paradigms understandably put the perfect
in third place, after the 'pure' forms.
This has interesting implications. According to Lewis:
'a pure tense form is used to give what the speaker sees
as the "bald facts" of the situation. The auxiliaries
provide greater insight into the speaker's interpretation
of the temporal aspects' (ibid:51)
'pure tense forms are used for what the speaker sees as
objective facts. In forms containing an auxiliary, the speaker
is interpreting the facts; we may perhaps call these subjective
I am sure it was not his deliberate intention but the sequence
here appears to suggest that 'pure' 'objective' factuality
comes first, and interpretation and subjectivity are tacked
Well, English is not Latin, and whatever 'objective' and 'subjective
facts' might mean, there is no reason to treat the past simple
as the norm and the perfect as some kind of deviation. Instead,
if we turn attention to the peculiarities of the past simple,
it seems to be
- preferred when there is a definite time reference.
- in some sense 'remote' (ibid:66).
Other writers are happy with the 'remote' label, too, and
it feels right in a lot of cases - but surely we should ask
remote from what? Now? the speaker? the interlocutor? here?
Please forget that question for a moment and, without yet
looking for a pattern, try this task:
What is the tone of voice in the following sentences?
What is the speaker's emotional state?
What is the speaker driving at?
Somebody's eaten my biscuits. Somebody ate my biscuits.
I've been to India. I went to India.
Who's given you flowers? Who gave you flowers?
That man was in prison. That man's been in prison.
It seems to me that in each instance of the present perfect
the focus of attention is the subject (Somebody, I, Who, That
man) and that this suggests the tone of voice: complaining,
boasting, prying, warning. The instances of the past simple
focus elsewhere (loss of biscuits, the visit to India, gift
of flowers, prison) and suggest (perhaps): disappointment,
dismissal, polite small talk, preliminary remarks to a discussion
If there is something in this it suggests that the past simple
is 'remote' from its subject. This makes sense in a polite
Would you mind if I smoked?
Would you mind if my husband smoked?
On the other hand the present perfect is in some way attached
to its subject. This is also suggested by the auxiliary 'have',
indicating that the participle somehow 'belongs' to the subject.
Rather than using timelines we might represent the present
perfect/past simple distinction like this:
eaten my biscuits. Somebody ate my biscuits.
been to India. I went to India.
If the present perfect indicates attachment of the action
or the state to the subject, this can include and refine both
the retrospective theory and the theory of current relevance,
except that the retrospective view is not from now but from
the point of view of the subject, and the relevance is not
necessarily current, but attached to the subject. Somebody's
eaten my biscuits uses the present perfect to focus on the
attachment of the deed to the doer. 'This is what the doer
has done and that fact is significant'.
Meanwhile the past simple in Somebody ate my biscuits suggests
that it does not much matter who ate my biscuits - what matters
is that they have been eaten.
Neither of the standard theories explains why we use the past
simple when there is a definite time reference, but it is
quite straightforward with a theory of attachment. Until a
time reference is introduced the primary attachment (or focus
of attention, if you prefer) in the sentence can be between
subject and action. But once yesterday or last week or when
I met the Pope is introduced the action attaches instead to
the time reference, disattaching from the subject (or shifting
the focus away from the subject to the time reference), and
so demanding a past simple.
Charlie's eaten sheep's eyes.
He had them when he was living in Oman.
Only a few time references are possible with the present perfect.
These might be seen as indicating the subject pulling the
state or action away from a point in time, but retaining the
He's avoided sheep ever since.
could represent this on a timeline if we want to:
attachment theory also explains death (in a manner of speaking).
Imagine a newly inaugurated American President concerned about
his personal security. 'Don't worry, Mr President' says his
bodyguard. 'The FBI has always taken good care.' 'But' the
President might object 'Kennedy was assassinated!' Why not
Kennedy has been assassinated? There is no time reference,
the president is looking back, and there is certainly current
relevance. Clearly neither of the standard theories works.
The explanation is, of course, that Kennedy is too long dead
- and this is the explanation you will hear from any native
speaker with no ELT background. He can no longer be attached
to anything, and so cannot be subject to a present perfect.
(Interestingly, there was a period after his death when he
could be, when Kennedy has been assassinated was quite possible,
but at some point this period elapsed and he had to become
satisfied with past simples.)
The theory also works well with conditionals, the past perfect
'When you've finished with that, we can go.'
presents no difficulties, though it proves fatal to Lewis'
account of the retrospective theory (see main text).
According to Thomson and Martinet the past perfect is used
'when it is necessary to emphasise that the first action was
completely finished before the second was started.' (1980:164)
but one of their examples, and one from Swan undermine this
He refused to go till he had seen all the papers.
She went out before I'd realised what was happening. (Swan
An attachment theory can accommodate these because it focuses
on the subject instead of on a point in time. It also accounts
for evidence from the Nottingham corpus that most instances
of the past perfect are explanatory, and few are related to
chronological ordering (McCarthy (1995)).
It also works well with:
The dog must have eaten the biscuits.
You could have told me!
Perhaps it also accounts for our reading Whodunnits, not Whodidits!
Implications for the classroom
Many people like the standard theories; an attachment theory
is another option, possibly better suited to some learning
styles. If it is worth pursuing it might suggest that instead
of following the usual order we should teach the present simple
and 'have got' followed by the present perfect and then the
Arguments in favour:
- It gives priority to the auxiliary, which through intonation
conveys important meaning in English (Lewis 1986:59,147-8).
- Many learners want to use auxiliaries, or some kind of 'already'
marker - hence the common tendency to add did or was where
they do not belong.
- In some ways the form of the present perfect is easier than
the past simple. The auxiliary makes it more distinct from
the present simple, and it is more consistent, retaining the
auxiliary in interrogative, negative and indicative forms.
- We have to teach 'have got' early. This is present perfect.
- The present perfect is more appropriate for personalization
than the past simple.
- The priority given to the past simple reflects its prevalence
in written rather than spoken discourse, particularly in narratives.
This kind of writing can be fun, and is prominent in the grammar
translation approach, but is arguably not very useful for
- The past simple is not so simple, as it generally co-occurs
with time references.
- As things stand, we expect the learner to use the past simple
unless certain vaguely defined circumstances arise which demand
the present perfect. Naturally the learner tends to prefer
to stick with what s/he knows. But if we reverse this and
have the learner use the present perfect unless there is a
definite time reference the learner has a far clearer basis
on which to grasp the rules, and is less likely to make mistakes.
It might seem odd to distinguish the perfect from the past
simple on the basis of attachment to the subject compared
with attachment to a definite time reference, since such comparisons
are unfamiliar. We are used to contrasting things within conceptual
categories (e.g. events occurring at a point in past time,
events occurring before this time, events occurring repeatedly
) but not between them. But this unfamiliarity
may have more to do with a conscious philosophical/scientific
outlook than with the workings of language (Consider the apparently
incongruous categories involved in the order of adjectives:
size, colour, origin, purpose
Perhaps a misguided attachment to a 'scientific' outlook is
also involved in the prioritising of objective over subjective
reality, in descriptions of grammar ('pure forms' before aspect)
as in other areas of life (economics, politics, business
We may question whether this is what we really want or believe
in. It may be that prioritising the present perfect over the
past simple is more appropriate to a humanistic approach than
the approach that we come to take for granted.
the contents page the 'f' in Third Form is in lower case,
the other two Forms being capitalised. (1986).
Yule makes a similar distinction between 'TENSE which often
has to do with the location of the situation in time, and
ASPECT which characterizes the way in which that situation
is perceived or experienced.' (1998:54)
In relation to will/be going to McCarthy and Carter (1995:214)
suggest 'it seems, real spoken data pushes us away from considerations
of the semantics of time and more towards interactive interpretations
of verb-form choice.' Perhaps this can also apply to the choice
between present perfect and past simple.
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