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Present perfect (and past simple) by Sarn Rich - 4

Appendix - A personal view of the present perfect (and past simple)

Several 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 about it!'
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 facts.' (ibid:68)

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 on after.

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 about prisons.

If there is something in this it suggests that the past simple is 'remote' from its subject. This makes sense in a polite request:

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:

Somebody's eaten my biscuits. Somebody ate my biscuits.

I've 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 attachment.
He's avoided sheep ever since.

We could represent this on a timeline if we want to:

An 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 and modals.
'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 account:

He refused to go till he had seen all the papers.

She went out before I'd realised what was happening. (Swan 1980:467).

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 past simple.

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 most learners.

- 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 in time…) 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.

In 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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