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.
- I've lost my calculator. (i.e. I don't have it now; can you help me find it?)
- Mary has fixed my computer. (i.e. It's working now)
- You haven't eaten very much. Don't you like it? (e.g. You are talking to your friend at the dinner table. There is a lot of food still on her plate.)
- Have you finished the crossword? I would like to read the newspaper now.
- I lost my calculator, but then I found it again.
- Mary fixed my computer, but now it's broken once more.
- You didn't eat very much? Didn't you like it? (spoken on the phone to your friend on the day following the meal)
- Did you finish the crossword? I thought it was very hard today.
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.
(The expressions of unfinished time are marked in italics.)
- I have played golf twice this week.
- I haven't seen John today.
- Have you ever been to Korea? (ever can be considered as meaning in your life)
- I've played golf every week since living in London. (I'm living in London now)
(By contrast, the following sentences have expressions of finished time.)
- I went to the cinema twice last week
- I didn't see John yesterday.
- Did you go to Korea in 1998?
- I played golf every week when I lived in London. (I don't live in London now)
Complication 1: Some of the expressions of unfinished time are ambiguous. For example, both of the following sentences are possible:
- I've had three cups of coffee this morning. (said at 11 o'clock in the morning)
- I had three cups of coffee this morning. (said at 4 o'clock in the afternoon of the same day)
- I haven't seen John today. Do you know where he is? (said to a colleague at the office during working hours)
- I didn't see John today. Do you know where he was? (said to a colleague on the train on the way home)
Complication 2: Often the reference to finished or unfinished time is implicit, i.e. it there is no direct expression of time. For example:
- That's good. I've written my report on the train! (said to a colleague while still sitting in the train.
- Here's my report. I wrote it on the train. (said to your boss later that day at the office)
- John's given me a lovely scarf for my birthday. (told to your mother on the telephone on your birthday)
- John gave me a lovely scarf for my birthday. (told to your mother a few days after your birthday)
3. Do I want to use one of the following words: just, already, yet, for, since? If yes, use the present perfect.
- I've just heard that Noriko is going back to Japan next week.
- Have you finished already? You're quick!
- I've been here 6 months already but I haven't learned any German yet.
- We've lived in Germany for twenty years.
- I haven't seen Hi-Jong since last April.
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:
- I was playing football .. (past continuous)
- I have been playing football ..(present perfect continuous)
- I had played football .. (past perfect)
- I had been playing football .. (past perfect continuous)
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?
- Where's Jane? - She's gone to the bank.
- Where's Jane? - She went to the bank.
- How have you got that black eye?
- How did you get that black eye?
- I've just seen John. He was wearing an orange shirt!
- I just saw John. He was wearing an orange shirt!
- What time have you got to work this morning? (said at 11 o'clock in the morning of the same day)
- What time did you get to work this morning? (said at 11 o'clock in the morning of the same day)
- I'm looking for John. Have you seen him?
- I'm looking for John. Did you see him?
- I haven't played golf for 3 years after I had the car accident.
- I didn't play golf for 3 years after I had the car accident.
- I haven't played golf in the 3 years since having the car accident.
- I didn't play golf in the 3 years since having the car accident.
- Until recently she walked to school every day.
- Until recently she has walked to school every day.
The following sentences are more likely:
- Where's Jane? - She's gone to the bank. ( - she isn't here now)
- How did you get that black eye? ( - the focus is on the cause of the black eye)
- I've just seen John. He was wearing an orange shirt! ( - just is used with the present perfect in British English; I just saw John is acceptable in American English)
- What time did you get to work this morning? ( - even though said at 11 o'clock in the morning of the same day, the focus is clearly on an event that took place some time ago)
- I'm looking for John. Have you seen him? (- the tense of the first sentence implies I want to talk to him now)
- I didn't play golf for 3 years after I had the car accident. ( -the three years after the accident finished sometime in the past)
- I haven't played golf in the 3 years since having the car accident. ( - the time since the accident has lasted into the present)
- Until recently she walked to school every day. ( - she doesn't walk to school anymore)