Another one of present perfect and past simple

Maricles

Member
Mexico-Spanish
Hello again, I'm becoming a regular visitor of these forums. They have been so helpful!!!

I'm reviewing the use of present perfect vs past simple.

1. I never understood that subject before.
2. I have never understood that subject before.

Supposing my two sentences are correct, what would be the difference in meaning between them?

By the way, I want to say that the people I've found here make the most interesting comments about English, its grammar and usage, and I consider you, fellow members, really intelligent and interesting people. I've come to appreciate some members, GenJen, JLanguage, Elroy, Brioche, just to mention a few. Keep enlightening us with your comments and corrections.

Thanx!

Maricles

Mod edit.
The relevance of this thread to Spanish-English should be clear from post #5 onwards.
Panjandrum
 
  • fenixpollo

    moderator
    American English
    Maricles said:
    1. I never understood that subject before.
    I didn't understand that subject, then one day, I had a revelation and I understood it. Before (that moment), I never understood it. Note: this sentence would sound better to me if it said, "I had never understood" in past perfect.
    2. I have never understood that subject before.
    I didn't understand that subject until just now (a moment in the very recent past... almost the present). Before (right now), I never understood it.
    I hope this helps.
     

    GenJen54

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    To me, the timeline of the first sentence needs clarification.

    I never understood that subject before.
    Before when? Two hours ago, yesterday, last week?
    The simple past does not allow for an automatic time reference as does the present perfect. The simple past is just that - a simple action which occurred in the past. That action is now over.

    I never understood that subject until I started taking English classes.
    I never understood that subject until I read about it in a magazine.

    In each of these two sentences, it is clear that "in the past" you did not understand the subject. Now, however, you do, because you clarified when the moment (or event) happened that you gained understanding.

    In the present perfect, the idea that "up until this moment/now" is understood, as fenixpollo suggested. The meaning of the sentence is clear based upon the construction of the tense.
     

    DaleC

    Senior Member
    1. I never understood that subject before.
    2. I have never understood that subject before.

    Supposing my two sentences are correct, what would be the difference in meaning between them?
    (1) focuses on a previous time (where some situation or action occurred) or on the situation or action itself. (2) focuses on the present time.

    The past situation or action, or the past time, that the speaker chooses to focus on may be far distant. Or it may be just a moment ago, virtually in the present -- I will return to this with an example. For now, in your example (1), the speaker is focusing on some past situation or event, and is withholding comment about present relevance (see next paragraph).
    [Back then, when I 16,] I never understood . . . .
    I never understood . . . . [and then something happened to change that]


    Present relevance. As for (2), the range of meanings of the so called "perfect" auxiliary, have, can be summed up as "present relevance". /1/ Be careful: the relevance may not be for the speaker's now, but for some time between then and now (that's where the English past perfect comes in).

    One type of present relevance involves completed past actions .

    The door has opened [and therefore it's chilly in here].

    Another case is that some action started in the past and is still happening now.

    We have been waiting for a week.

    A third case is similar to the first: a completed past action is not just relevant to the present, but is a permanent truth about one's life. This is usually the case in answer to the question, "Have you ever X?"

    I have been to Mexico. (A journey is usually of lifelong significance.)

    Similarly, a man might say
    "[Yes, ] I've worn a dress" [only once in my life, and it was 40 years ago.]
    If he said "I wore a dress", he'd be emphasizing the event itself and staying noncommittal as to its present relevance./2/

    Contrast this with "I've bought Tolstoy's War and Peace". [it's hard to imagine somebody saying that if they did it ten years ago] One would readily say "I've read War and Peace", even if the reading was 50 years ago. I am just realizing I would be unable to fully explain why "I've read it [I did so 50 years ago]" is good while "I've bought it [I did so 50 years ago]" is bad.

    This brings us what I promised above: there is a subtle example to distinguish the use of these tenses. It is,

    "I never knew that!" [e.g, I never knew that cats sleep 20 hours a day!]

    Probably every one of us English speakers has at one time exclaimed it at the very instant of hearing or reading fascinating new information. On the one hand, we would surely think it has present relevance, because the action of somebody giving you the information just finished a second ago, plus it may be something you'll always remember. By saying "I never knew that!" over "I've never known that!", you are focusing on the instant of revelation, or perhaps more accurately, focusing on the event of the relevation. In fact, you have little choice; it would be almost inconceivable to say "I've never known that!". I suppose the reason why is that the action is in fact in the present, not yet in the past, so that we cannot speak of a the present moment being influenced by a past situation or event.

    More fundamentally, the use of the "perfect" in English is to relate the present to some past situation or past action that "set the stage" for the present situation. Back to "I never knew that!" At the instant when we are feeling surprise at new information, the brand new present situation of surprised knowing is still of one piece -- a single event -- with the "past" situation of ignorance. The state of ignorance is does not feel like a forerunner to the present instant, but like part of it.

    * ** * ** * * * *
    /1/ (By the way, this is the overall meaning of the "perfect" tenses in Classical Greek, too. The term "present relevance" is used in a popular old English language grammar of Classical Greek, by H W Smyth.)

    /2/ Typically, when people are withholding explicit comment as to present relevance, it's because they're telling a story, like about a time in their childhood. They narrate one event after another, all in the simple past tense. This gives rise to the term "narrative past tense" in the study of some languages.
     

    DaleC

    Senior Member
    Since posting my long, long reply, something hit me. The person who asked the question is Spanish speaking. But supposedly, Spanish uses haber exactly as English uses have, at least most of the time. Because I've been reading books and newspapers in Spanish for 20 years, this development makes me curious as to what differences there might in fact be. If anyone wants to discuss this with me in private messages, I would be grateful.
     

    bartonig

    Senior Member
    UK English
    1. I never understood that subject before.
    2. I have never understood that subject before.

    For me, the first sentence is semantically incomplete. It leaves me thinking before when? I would expect to hear something like I never understood that subject before today.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    DaleC said:
    Since posting my long, long reply, something hit me. The person who asked the question is Spanish speaking. But supposedly, Spanish uses haber exactly as English uses have, at least most of the time.
    I wouldn't say that. The English present perfect has no correspondence in Romance languages. It's one of the most difficult parts of learning English for us.
    Don't be misled by morphology. Spanish he comprendido is basically a variant of comprendí, with a mild connotation of "closer to the present" in some dialects.
     

    DaleC

    Senior Member
    Replying to Outsider from Portugal. Outsider wrote:

    The English present perfect has no correspondence in Romance languages.
    This is true of French (which I've studied to an intermediate level), but not true of Spanish.

    To get to the bottom of the comparison between English on the one hand and one of the Romance languages on the other, we have to recognize there are dialectal differences within each of the languages. This is the crucial lesson from the book I was relying on in the first place.

    There is much detail in section 14.9 of A new reference grammar of modern Spanish. by John Butt and Carmen Benjamin. I am referring to the 2d edition, 1994. The fourth edition was released in 2004. Our Spanish speaking members (and maybe Portuguese speaking, too) should consult this source, as well as participating in this forum, which is so convenient. The authors, who teach in Britain, give extensive notes on dialectal variation, based on consultations many native speakers representing many dialects.

    Actually, the differences between British English and North American English are trivial: the set of meanings is the same for the two groups, but the British use it more.

    I will quote briefly from Butt and Benjamin.
    "The uses of the perfect include: to denote events occurring in time that includes the present; for events whose effect are still relevant in the present; perfect of recency; perfect in time phrases; use for quotations; used for future certainties."
    "Spanish differs from French, German, and italian, and broadly resembles English in that the difference in meaning between the preterite -- hablé -- and the perfect -- he hablado -- is maintained in both written and spoken language." "European Spanish usually uses the perfect whenever English does, but the converse is not true. . . ."

    Outsider wrote:
    Don't be misled by morphology. Spanish he comprendido is basically a variant of comprendí, with a mild connotation of "closer to the present" in some dialects.
    Butt and Benjamin with regard to this point. "In Spain, but not in Latin America, the perfect may be optionally used for any very recent event, in practice any event that has happened since midnight [as well as] very recent events (e.g. seconds ago) . . . . The perfect of recency is confined to standard European Spanish [except for] colloquial use in Bolivia and Perú."

    Following, three other highlights from Butt and Benjamin, section 14.9.

    *In Latin America all completed actions tend to be expressed by the preterite [e.g., hablé instead of he hablado], more so in some regions than others. . . . The perfect of recency, frequent in Spin, is not used in Mexico or in most of Latin America.

    * Mexican Spanish differs from Europen in that the perfect is not used to indicate a past action that is still relevant to the present, as in the European sentence Alguien ha fumado un cigarrillo aquí 'Someone's smoked a cigarette here (I can still smell the smoke)', but an action that is continuing in the present or the future: Mexican He fumado mucho = 'I have been smoking a lot and still am smoking'.

    * The Latin American preference for the preterite to indicate all past completed actions has its counterpart in North-American English. Compare US 'Did you sell your apartment yet?', 'Did they arrive already?' and British 'Have you sold your flat yet?', 'Have they arrived already?' "
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I honestly don't see how that contradicts what I said. Your own quotes say:

    "European Spanish usually uses the perfect whenever English does, but the converse is not true. . . ." :arrow: So the English p.p. and the (European) Spanish p.p. do not have the same value. The regional variations within Spanish only add to the difference.

    By the way, I thought there were some differences between the use of the p.p. in BE and AE, too.
     

    DaleC

    Senior Member
    In reply to some of the latest comments:

    1. In European Spanish, haber does not indicate recent past "mildly", but strongly.

    2. Despite the claim that there is "no correspondence", there is massive correspondence (not between English and just any Romance language, but between English and Spanish). For some details, see my second post. The correspondence is less than 100 percent, but that does not matter. Crucially, English and European Spanish both use have/haber to indicate two kinds of "present relevance".
    Besides quoting from a reference grammar, I am relying on my experience reading books and newspapers in Spanish for two decades. I often scrutinized occurrences of the compound tenses in my readings precisely to make sure of their meaning. I confirmed for myself that a haber hecho in Spanish often means exactly what a have done means in English -- at least in book and newspaper Spanish ;).

    Outsider wrote:

    I honestly don't see how that contradicts what I said.

    [which in turn was
    "The English present perfect has no correspondence in Romance languages. . . .
    Spanish he comprendido is basically a variant of comprendí, with a mild connotation of "closer to the present" in some dialects."
    ]
    Your own quotes say:

    "European Spanish usually uses the perfect whenever English does, but the converse is not true. . . ." :arrow: So the English p.p. and the (European) Spanish p.p. do not have the same value.
    They do not always have the same value.

    Here is the reference book I rely on.
    Butt, J. and Benjamin, C. (2004), A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, 4th Edition, London: Arnold.
    The two authors (John Butt and Carmen Benjamin) have long taught Spanish at Kings College, London. Benjamin is a native of Spain. Dialectal differences within Spanish are specified throughout the text. I repeat that I think this makes this discussion on topic in this forum: Spanish and Portuguese speakers would be greatly served by this book.

    This article is not about Spanish grammar, but it looks very interesting.
    Can E-Learning Foster Intercultural Competence?
    Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching (Oxford University)
    http://www.brookes.ac.uk/publications/bejlt/volume1issue3/practice/rollin_harrap.html!
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Mod note.
    This thread has wandered far off the original topic into the realms of comparison between Spanish and English.
    I am therefore re-locating it to Spanish-English, leaving a signpost in English-Only for those who may be curious about its disappearance.
    Panjandrum
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top