I <have?> never read such rubbish in my life.

Couch Tomato

Senior Member
Russian & Dutch
"What ineffable twaddle!" I cried, slapping the magazine down on the table, "I never read such rubbish in my life."
(A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle)

Wouldn't the present perfect make more sense here, especially taking into account that this is British English? By using the present perfect "I have never read such rubbish in my life" the past is connected to the present, and this makes sense as he just read the magazine. It's not something that happened ages ago about which he is speaking now, with no possibility of reading something more nonsensical in the futurity.

What do you think?
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    It would indeed - today. And, like you, I understand that AmE is happy with the simple past here. But why do the two dialects have different grammars? One of them must have innovated at some point in the past. The very fact that Conan Doyle wrote that suggests to me that it was once permitted in BrE as it still is in AmE, and has ceased to be.


    English - England
    Research on the English perfect has revealed considerable variation in use both diachronically, across longer historical periods, and synchronically, across regions and dialects.
    (.pdf download at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/english-usage/projects/verb-phrase/book/bowiewallisaarts.pdf (I don't recommend downloading - thereafter the paper concerns itself mainly with post 1950 English.)

    The speaker (Dr Watson?) has announced that he has finished reading and the article is to be cast aside. Having said that, I said the example a few times and find that either the simple past or the perfect do the job.

    Couch Tomato

    Senior Member
    Russian & Dutch
    Thank you, entangledbank and PaulQ.

    Yes, the speaker is Dr. Watson. I've known for a long time that speakers of AmE do not always make this distinction, but I was under the impression that the vast majority of BrE speakers do use the present perfect in such a case.


    English - England
    The perfect is commoner in BE but that is not to say that the simple past is not used. Although I didn't recommend the download above, it does go into the relative uses of the two tenses.

    Without going back to it, I would say that whereas in AE the perfect:simple past would be about 45:55, in BE it would be 55:45. Amongst each set of speakers it is likely that those ratios would be maintained. I don't think there would be significant regional variations within the sets.

    I say this without checking, as there was a similar post a few days back where it was believed that AE speakers don't use the perfect and BE speakers only use the perfect.

    The figures, if anyone has them to hand, would be interesting.


    Senior Member
    English - British
    It is true in general that American usage employs the present perfect less than British.
    However, the present case in my view is not a counterexample to that proposition, but does illustrate the difference between the tenses in British usage.

    What is the difference between the tenses in British usage?
    The present perfect places the past event in a present context: explicitly linking it to the present.
    The simple past places the past event in a past context: explicitly distancing it from the present.

    We can illustrate this simplistically in the example of the lost keys.
    'I have lost my keys' says not only that they were lost but that the loss still affects me: they are still missing.
    (a) 'Could you let me in? I have lost my keys.'
    'I lost my keys' says not only that they were lost but that the loss no longer affects me: they have been found or replaced.
    (b) 'I lost my keys yesterday and I had to ask Bill to let me in'.

    I call the above comparison simplistic, because although it is valid as far as it goes, it does not rule out cases where we would say 'I lost my keys' without implying they have been found.
    As an obvious example: (c) 'I lost my keys this morning and have still not found them'.

    In sentence (c), the past simple is still being used to distance the event from the present. The point is that some searching has taken place between the loss and the present moment. In (c), the present perfect is linking the failure of the implied search to the present, and therefore the loss itself needs to be set further back by putting it in the past simple.

    Returning to Dr. Watson, the past simple is also being used here in order to distance the event from the present, even though it is very close to the present. In this case, like example (c), a second event has intervened between it and the present. The past simple is being used to set the initial event back to an earlier stage.

    What second event? The instant conclusion formed by Watson that the article was twaddle.
    That is the mental event which dominates his attention now and the reading is one stage further back.

    Distancing is also seen in the fact that Watson slaps the magazine down on the table.
    He is flinging the article away from him both physically and mentally.
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