Past simple vs Present Perfect

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jimmyy

Senior Member
Romanian
Hi,

I would like to get to the bottom of the difference between Past simple and Present perfect.
I bought the English Grammar in Use and I'm still puzzled.

I can't fully understand when each one of them should be used, and I think it's just because sometimes both can be used, but I have the feeling that there are certain nuances when using one or another.

I understood the easy cases when some particular words are used: "just", "never", "yet" that call for Past perfect.

But in practice I had three cases when I did not know which one is better:
1)
I spoke with my friend1 yesterday and he told me that he has an early flight the day after (today).
Today in the afternoon I was talking to a common friend2, and I wanted to tell him that our friend has flown in the morning and I could not make a clear choice between:

He flew to New York
or
He has flown to New York

I chose "He has flown" but I was not sure and I'm still not sure of my choice.

2) One minute after I've cut the bread, since it was one of many things to do, I said:
I've cut the bread - just announcing that I've just cut the bread, but I did not mention the word "just"
I assume that it is correct to say "I've cut the bread", but would it have been wrong to say: "I cut the bread" (as in past simple)

3) The classical example is the one with:
"I lost my key"
vs
"I've lost my key" - which in English Grammar in Use is explained as: "I've lost my key" means that I do not have it now, so the action in the past has an impact now. But this logic is not very easy to apply since, almost everything that happened in the past has an impact now, to a ceartain extent.

Can you please help me understand the difference between the two.

Thank you
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    1. "He has flown to New York" sounds fine, Jimmyy. It would also have sounded fine to say "He flew to New York". When you use the present perfect, you emphasize the idea that his flight to New York still affects him in the present.

    2. "I've cut the bread" is fine, but it would also be possible to say "I cut the bread". When I choose the present perfect, the bread is still important to me. I intend to do something with it - like smear some butter on it and eat it. If I choose the simple past in "I cut the bread", I'm merely reporting something that I did in the past.

    3. I understand your point about the past always affecting the present, but speakers distinguish between actions that are apparently limited to the past and those that affect the present in some obvious or important way. I agree with your book's advice: "I've lost my key" - that loss troubles me now. Maybe I don't have a spare key. "I lost my key" - there's no clear relation to the present. Maybe I'm talking about a loss that no longer seems important to me.

    We get a lot of questions about the correct use of the simple past and the present perfect in the forum, Jimmyy. If you would like some reliable information to help you review these tenses, here's a link to the present perfect at "The English Page": present perfect If you look on the left side of the page, you'll find information about the simple past and many other tenses.
     
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    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    (3) is the easiest of these to explain - which is no doubt why it is the classical example.

    Using the present perfect, you know that my key is still lost.

    Using past simple, I might be talking about an incident that happened a long time ago. Perhaps the key is still lost, perhaps I found it - you can't tell from the statement.
     

    jimmyy

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    So basically, I should use the Present Perfect for what ever it's important for me now with regards to something that happened in the past, with the obvious exceptions (when you cannot use the Present perfect).

    The link is useful, but I have to read it three more times to fully understand it, because at the end of the day, it's what looks important for the speaker.

    It's quite difficult to start thinking like this, just because in example 2, even if I would have to butter on it, it's not important at all for me :), I think it's very difficult to judge in a split of a second whether the fact that you cut bread is important or not for now.

    For the 3rd example, the classical one, but panjandrum you say:"Using the present perfect, you know that my key is still lost." , shall I understand that if you use the Past simple : "I lost my key" you would know that the key was found? I guess that you do not know either whether the key was lost or not.

    As far as I can understand it it's just that this is important for you know, but then I have to be very careful to recognise the cases that might still be very important for me, but where the Past perfect is not possible, such as "yesterday, one year ago".

    Thank you for your useful explanations
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    (3) is the easiest of these to explain - which is no doubt why it is the classical example.
    Using the present perfect, you know that my key is still lost.
    But this is not the only possible present implication. The following example may help put "I have lost" in a broader context.
    A: My keys have been stolen. Do you know where I can get a new set?
    B: Yes, I have lost my keys. I got new ones from the shop on the corner.
    Here the present implication is "I know what to do when one loses one's keys". This is the effect of the past event that is relevant to the present conversation. It is irrelevant to this conversation whether the keys are still lost.
     

    jimmyy

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    Thank you se16teddy, thank you all for your help,

    I was reading an article and I came across this phrase:

    1. "The government has said it wants to develop a new way of measuring student migration in and out of the UK."
    I guess that this is just the news style by using the Present perfect in the title of the article, or is it another reason?

    But in the same article both present perfect and past simple are used and I can't understand what was the reasoning.

    2. "The coalition has pledged to cut immigration - but most incomers are in the UK on student visas. "

    3. "Mr Willetts also announced that the government will offer financial help to legitimate overseas students who are in danger of being deported after a London university lost the right to recruit overseas students from outside the European Union"

    4. "London Metropolitan University failed to make proper checks on overseas students, government agencies said, although that is disputed by the university which is mounting a legal challenge."

    I'm most puzzled by the difference between 1 "the government has said" and 4 "government agencies said". Which are the reasons for using in 1 Past perfect and in 4 present simple.

    Would it be wrong to say in 4 "government agencies have said" ? if no , then is there a difference in meaning, if yes why would it be wrong?

    Thanks a million
     
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    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    In 1. and 2. "the government has said" and "The coalition has pledged" imply that they are under a present obligation, and we can expect them to carry out their promise.

    3. and 4. are putting the government statements in their context as historical events, occurring at a specified time in the past. The sentences do not imply that the government has a present obligation. (Sometimes we can make a statement in the simple past and leave it to the listener to infer a present consequence, but I am not sure that this is happening here.)

    If you said in 4 "government agencies have said", exactly what relevant present consequence would you intend to imply?
     

    bambina-in-nero

    Senior Member
    Italian
    1. "He has flown to New York" sounds fine, Jimmyy. It would also have sounded fine to say "He flew to New York". When you use the present perfect, you emphasize the idea that his flight to New York still affects him in the present.

    2. "I've cut the bread" is fine, but it would also be possible to say "I cut the bread". When I choose the present perfect, the bread is still important to me. I intend to do something with it - like smear some butter on it and eat it. If I choose the simple past in "I cut the bread", I'm merely reporting something that I did in the past.

    3. I understand your point about the past always affecting the present, but speakers distinguish between actions that are apparently limited to the past and those that affect the present in some obvious or important way. I agree with your book's advice: "I've lost my key" - that loss troubles me now. Maybe I don't have a spare key. "I lost my key" - there's no clear relation to the present. Maybe I'm talking about a loss that no longer seems important to me.

    We get a lot of questions about the correct use of the simple past and the present perfect in the forum, Jimmyy. If you would like some reliable information to help you review these tenses, here's a link to the present perfect at "The English Page": present perfect If you look on the left side of the page, you'll find information about the simple past and many other tenses.
    Dear owlman,
    I've been studying the present perfect page your suggested but, what I don't understand is that it's never mentioned the fact that, if the time of the action has not finished yet when we are talking, we should use present perfect, instead of past simple;
    for example, with "today", "this month", "This year", we are compelled to use present perfect, isnt'it?
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Dear owlman,
    I've been studying the present perfect page your suggested but, what I don't understand is that it's never mentioned the fact that, if the time of the action has not finished yet when we are talking, we should use present perfect, instead of past simple;
    for example, with "today", "this month", "This year", we are compelled to use present perfect, isnt'it?
    No. "Today", "this month" and "this year" do not necessarily imply that the action has not finished.
    Today I waited for the bus for half an hour. Finally it came along.
     

    jimmyy

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    In 1. and 2. "the government has said" and "The coalition has pledged" imply that they are under a present obligation, and we can expect them to carry out their promise.

    3. and 4. are putting the government statements in their context as historical events, occurring at a specified time in the past. The sentences do not imply that the government has a present obligation.
    Hi se16teddy,
    The reasons that you explained make sense, but it's one interpretation of the text. Based on the link provided by owlman
    http://www.englishpage.com/verbpage/presentperfect.html
    can you please which of the triggers present there is used in the exemples 1 and 2.

    (Sometimes we can make a statement in the simple past and leave it to the listener to infer a present consequence, but I am not sure that this is happening here.)

    If you said in 4 "government agencies have said", exactly what relevant present consequence would you intend to imply?
    Actually this is what I wanted to understand from you, which would be the difference in 4 between :

    "government agencies have said"
    and
    "government agencies said"

    Thanks,
    Jimmyy
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Hello, Jimmyy. I often see the present perfect used in news stories about some government decision. Here is one of your examples:

    "The government has said it wants to develop a new way of measuring student migration in and out of the UK."

    When I read "the government has said" rather than "the government said", I have a strong expectation that whatever it is officials have said will continue to affect their decisions. This is an example of using the present perfect to emphasize the ongoing relationship between the past and the present. If I read "the government said", I don't necessarily expect what they said to have any relevance in the present.

    Remember that writers often mix the simple past and the present perfect in their articles. When they use the simple past, they are generally reporting something that happened and no more. When they use the present perfect, they have some reason for doing so. More often than not, they wish to remind the reader that what was said or done in the past affects the present in some way.
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Dear owlman,
    I've been studying the present perfect page your suggested but, what I don't understand is that it's never mentioned the fact that, if the time of the action has not finished yet when we are talking, we should use present perfect, instead of past simple;
    for example, with "today", "this month", "This year", we are compelled to use present perfect, isnt'it?
    No. "Today", "this month" and "this year" do not necessarily imply that the action has not finished.
    Today I waited for the bus for half an hour. Finally it came along.
    Hello, Bambina. I'm sorry I didn't see your question until today (Sept. 29), but I'm glad to see that Teddy gave you a good answer. As Teddy said, those adverbs can certainly be used with the simple past.
     

    Giorgio Spizzi

    Senior Member
    Italian
    I suspect bambina was referring to the fact that "today", "this month", "this year" etc., rather than the actions expressed in the predicate, are not finished (ie come to their end). I can understand bambina's perplexity. Quite a few grammar books and coursebooks traditionally give a rule regarding the uses of the present Perfect in British English stating that "if the period of time during which the action has taken place has not finished, then the Present Perfect of the verb expressing the action must be used. Typical examples follow:

    "There have been a lot of wars in the near and middle East in this century";
    "Today I haven't met Jane yet";
    "This week there's been a terrible earthquake in Italy".

    Maybe this rule ought to be revised or — quite possibly — differences arise when one "crosses the pond".

    GS :)
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Giorgio Spizzi;12585681 Maybe this rule ought to be revised or — quite possibly — differences arise when one "crosses the pond". GS :)[/QUOTE said:
    I think there are some differences, Giorgio. I've noticed that BE prefers the present perfect in some situations where it would sound normal to use the simple past in AE. I can't think of any examples at the moment, but I've seen some in the forum before.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    almost everything that happened in the past has an impact now
    This is a valid point.

    The key is that the present perfect expresses two different things.
    (a) It reports that a past action is complete (perfect). This is a statement about the external world.
    (b) It states that the speaker attaches a present significance to that past action. This is a statement about the speaker's state of mind.

    The past simple on the other hand expresses (a) but not (b).
    The simple past does not mean that the speaker sees no present significance in the past action.
    It is just that the past simple does not make that significance explicit.

    'Have you finished that job yet?' 'Oh yes, I finished it on Monday'. :tick:

    In this case, the first speaker expresses that the question of finishing is still a live issue, while the second speaker expresses that it is not. He is revealing a different state of mind.

    The second speaker could also have said simply, 'Yes, I have'. :tick:

    This alternative answer is also correct, even though it is still true that the job was finished on Monday.
    In this case, he is responding in the same terms as the questioner and is not revealing a different state of mind.
    He is giving no hint that the job was finished earlier than expected.
     
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    Giorgio Spizzi

    Senior Member
    Italian
    The Present Perfect — as its grammatical label implies — is a tense by means of which the speaker tell us things about the present state of affairs regarding the Subject of the sentence. In that sense, it's a tense of the present (time).
    The Latins had something very similar to it: when they said the Latin for " I have captured the enemy" what they thought and meant was "I possess (have) the enemy (in the condition of) captured". Hardly were they thinking of the capture event/episode. To relate about the capture of the enemy, they would use the Past Simple (the synthetic perfect).
    Then, chaos came upon the use of the Latin "analytic perfect", which started to be used to recount past events, and with this erroneous meaning passed on to the various Romance languages and to German. Now the picture is discomforting for speakers of a Romance language (or of German, for that matter), who will say "I've seen him yesterday".
    Only English — and British English at that — has maintained the old use of the Perfect.

    Best.

    GS
     

    jimmyy

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    Thank you all for your useful explanations.

    If I got it right and comming back to the example with the government:

    1. "The government has said it wants to develop a new way of measuring student migration in and out of the UK."

    4. "London Metropolitan University failed to make proper checks on overseas students, government agencies said, although that is disputed by the university which is mounting a legal challenge."

    Basically for the author of this article the first sentence, is more important. We do not know how important it is, whether the government said something and did not do it, or maybe the author does not agree with what the government said... we, the readers we do not know what the author find important about what the government said, but it's important for him.

    Whereas , in the 4th example, the author just lists, mentions what the government agencies said, but does it just more for information, he does not attach any meaning to it, it is up to the reader to decide whether this information is important or not, for the other it's not that important he just states a fact.

    If my above interpretation is correct, it means that when the present perfect is used, it just means that for the author is important, and the past simple is just presenting something that happened without attaching any feelings to that presentation.

    What I find difficult to understand is that even though when the present perfect is used it means that it's important for the speaker, we do not know why... it's just important... . In example 1, we do not know why what the Government said is important for the author, isn't it? It's more that you have to try to guess why it's important.... and sometimes you cannot really guess if additional information is not given...
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British

    What I find difficult to understand is that even though when the present perfect is used it means that it's important for the speaker, we do not know why... it's just important... . In example 1, we do not know why what the Government said is important for the author, isn't it? It's more that you have to try to guess why it's important.... and sometimes you cannot really guess if additional information is not given...
    The present perfect does not at all say that the fact stated is more important than another one stated in the past simple. The opposite could very easily be the case.

    'Dash! I've broken my shoelace. It's one thing after another. Yesterday I lost my wallet with all my money and cards.'

    In news stories, the present perfect very often indicates the latest piece of news, whereas the past simple indicates something which may have been breaking news yesterday or the day before, but is now no longer the latest news.
    This is the same difference as in the above example.

    If you ask, 'What is the present significance which is implied by the present perfect?' that question is as big and as vague as the question 'What things are significant to human beings?'.

    You can only judge the significance from the context in each case: but provided the writer is using English correctly, that significance will always be understandable from the context. The necessary information is always there, even though it may not be obvious to the learner of English.

    Please note: in using the word 'significant' I do not mean 'specially important'.
    'Significant' in this context just means 'having a meaning' and 'significance' means 'meaning'.
     
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    Koluu

    New Member
    India - Hindi
    Hi,

    I am reading usage of present perfect and past simple.

    Have you been to Paris?

    vs

    Did you visit Paris?

    Do they mean same?

    Thanks.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Do they mean same?
    Not exactly, no. In summary: the second question is strictly about the past, the first question suggests that the past event is in some way relevant to the present. For example, you may ask the second question if you know that the person you are asking intended to go to Paris at a particular time in the past. You may ask the first question if you are discussing present knowledge and feelings, and how past travels have affected them.
     
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    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    "Have you been to Paris" is talking about "life experience":
    Have you ever (at any time in your life) been to Paris?

    "Did you visit Paris?" is talking about a specific occasion or period of time - and I would expect the speaker, or the other person, to have already referred to it:

    Did you visit Paris when you were staying in France last year?
    Ah, so you travelled in Europe when you were a student? Did you visit Paris?
     

    Giorgio Spizzi

    Senior Member
    Italian
    The Simple Past tells us what the subject of the sentence DID, while the Present Perfect tells us what the subject of the sentence HAS.

    GS :)
     
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