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Past time

I have been arguing in this series of articles that English is not such an easy language as some people claim. To further prove my point, I would like to return to the topic of grammar. Few native speakers of English are aware of the huge and very complex set of rules (i.e. grammar) that they follow when they speak or write their own language. These rules have been learned and refined without any direct teaching from the moment they started hearing English as babies. For them there is never a problem in choosing the correct grammar form for the particular meaning they want to convey.

In the discussion below I want to give an idea of the extent and complexity of this implicit grammatical knowledge. I will take as my example the choice of the correct tense to talk about a past event, in particular the choice between the past simple (I saw him .. ) and the present perfect (I've seen him .. ). We know little about how the native speaker comes to choose the appropriate tense. However, the processes involved can be imagined as a series of questions and answers flashing through the brain in the split-second before words come out of the mouth. Here are three of these hypothetical questions and answers:

1. Do I want to stress the connection between the past event and now? If yes, use the present perfect, otherwise use the past simple.

Present perfect

Past simple

Complication: When we focus on the cause or origin of the past event, we use the past simple even if there is a clear connection to the present. For example: Although we say Look at this beautiful picture that little Sam has drawn! (present perfect), it has to be Who drew this beautiful picture? (past simple). Talking to a child who has just broken a cup, you might say Now look what you have done! (present perfect) but it would be unusual to say Why have you done that? or You've done that on purpose! (present perfect). Much more likely are: Why did you do that? or You did that on purpose! (past simple).

2. Do I want to use an expression of unfinished time? If yes, use the present perfect, otherwise use the past simple.

Present perfect

(The expressions of unfinished time are marked in italics.)

Past Simple

(By contrast, the following sentences have expressions of finished time.)

Complication 1: Some of the expressions of unfinished time are ambiguous. For example, both of the following sentences are possible:


Complication 2: Often the reference to finished or unfinished time is implicit, i.e. it there is no direct expression of time. For example:

3. Do I want to use one of the following words: just, already, yet, for, since? If yes, use the present perfect.

Present perfect

Complication 1: In American English it is acceptable to use the past simple with some of these words. E.g. I just heard that .. Did you finish already? I didn't see the new movie yet.

Complication 2: When just means simply it can take the past simple. E.g. He just got up and left without saying a word.

Complication 3: If the state being described has finished, for can be used with the past simple. E.g. We lived in France for twenty years after getting married, then we moved to Germany.

This is a very simplified and selective account of what is involved in choosing between the present perfect and past simple; the native speaker's implicit knowledge of when to use the two tenses is far more detailed. And of course the English learner has more than just the present perfect and past simple to select from when talking about the past. Any of the following tenses might be the most appropriate way to formulate the message he wants to convey:


If you wish to test how much knowledge you have about the rules of using the present perfect or past simple, look at the following pairs of sentences and decide which sentence in each case is the more likely one?


The following sentences are more likely:

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