Present perfect puzzle

Discussion in 'English Only' started by vertigo12, Mar 14, 2018.

  1. vertigo12

    vertigo12 Member

    Mexico
    Thai - Thailand
    Hello everybody!
    The present perfect has a wide range of applications. Here are some that I've come across so far and I think I have a very good understanding of them.
    • To describe an action that started in the past and still continues (My cousin has been in AA since 2000).
    • To describe something that has happened in one's lifetime and has the potency of happening again (I've flown in a helicopter many times).
    • To describe a change over time that is evident now (You've become almost fluent in German since you picked up that language course).
    Now what still baffles me is the present perfect used for past events that have an impact on the present (a past occurrence with a result now). Numerous grammar pages out there indicate that it's okay to say things like "Clair has broken her leg, so she can't play basketball today". However, apparently it's incorrect to say that "I've broken my car, so I can't give you a ride" when a friend of mine wants me to take them somewhere and has no idea of what state my car is in currently. I find it very confusing.
    More examples of the use of the present perfect in question that I scraped together on the Internet (or should it be "that I've scraped together"?).
    • A storm has blown down the telephone lines. We’re stuck here!
    • I've lost my keys. I can't get into the house.
    • Someone has eaten my soup! I have nothing more to eat.
    • Mom, Kevin has let the cat out. The cat is outside!
    And this one I remember I saw in the Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, spoken by Gandalf to Sam Gamgee who was eavesdropping by Frodo's window - "Why did you listen and what have you heard?"

    Can you please comment on just when it is appropriate to refer to a past action with a result in the present using the present perfect?
     
  2. lingobingo

    lingobingo Senior Member

    London
    English - England
    When it’s appropriate is demonstrated in the examples you’ve quoted. What don’t you understand?

    The only thing you’ve said that’s quite wrong is “I’ve broken my car, so I can’t give you a ride.” But this has nothing to do with the tense. It’s just that you can’t break a car. We don’t say that. Instead, you could say something like “My car has conked out/broken down, so I can’t give you a ride”.
     
  3. vertigo12

    vertigo12 Member

    Mexico
    Thai - Thailand
    Please, don't be hard on me. I'm just a learner after all :)

    Okay, can we wreck a car? What if I say "I've wrecked my car, so I can't take you downtown"? Would that be correct and natural as a reply to the friendly request I mentioned in the OP?
     
  4. lingobingo

    lingobingo Senior Member

    London
    English - England
    I’m not being hard on you. I just don’t get how you can give so many examples that explain something and still say you don’t understand it. :)

    The car example was presumably one you made up, which is why it was the only one that was wrong. As for "I've wrecked my car, so I can't take you downtown", this is fine (but only in American English).
     
  5. vertigo12

    vertigo12 Member

    Mexico
    Thai - Thailand
    Right, that car sentence was made up by me. And originally it said "I've wrecked my car". Thing is, I've been bugging native speakers with this and all of them said my choice of tense was wrong. But I don't see a huge difference between "a boy who's broken his leg and can't play" and "me who's wrecked the car and can't use it". I mean logic-wise.
     
  6. lingobingo

    lingobingo Senior Member

    London
    English - England
    I don’t see a huge difference either. All of these are fine:

    The boy has broken his leg, so he won’t be able to play football for a while.
    My car has gone in for repair, so I can’t drive you home today.
    I’ve lost my car keys, so I can’t drive you home today.
    I’ve crashed my car, so I can’t drive you home today.
     
  7. vertigo12

    vertigo12 Member

    Mexico
    Thai - Thailand
    There, a new and quite uplifting opinion. Thanks a bunch, lingobingo!
    One last question. In that last sentence -- I've crashed my car, so I can't drive you home today -- does it matter if I crashed the car a month ago or a week ago or just the other day? So long as I don't mention the exact time, it's perfectly fine to use the present perfect, isn't it? Meaning, I am aware that crashing my car took place, say, a month ago and I took it to a mechanic immediately after this happened, and the car is still being repaired. However, my friend has no clue, so "I've crashed my car, so I can't take you anywhere" sounds good, right?
     
  8. lingobingo

    lingobingo Senior Member

    London
    English - England
    There’s no hint in that sentence as to when the crash took place. As usual, it would have to be the context that made that clear.
     
  9. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    Hi Vertigo,

    This is a question we get quite often.

    I've crashed my car carries the suggestion that this is a recent event impinging on the present. After all it would be odd to say that you couldn't drive today because you crashed your car ten years ago.

    Whether you'd be likely or not to use the present perfect would be influenced also by how recently you last saw the person you are speaking to; normally you'd not be likely use the present perfect if you had already seen the other person since the crash, particularly if you mentioned it when you saw them then.
     
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2018
  10. boozer Senior Member

    Bulgaria
    Bulgarian
    Here. you have said it very well! This applied to the car example, too - it does not matter when you wrecked it. What matters is that you cannot give your friend a ride now. This is the present relevance you yourself have mentioned. :)

    As regards 'I have broken my car', well, LB is right, of course, that it is not a very usual thing to say, but I find it correct grammatically and a bit funny too. It tells me you took something heavy, e.g. a hammer, and broke whatever you could break. Or maybe 'sabotaged' it beyond repair or, through ignorance, damaged it badly while trying to fix it. In any case, 'I have broken my car' is meaningful to me. :)
     
  11. velisarius

    velisarius Senior Member

    Greece
    British English (Sussex)
    A child could say "I've broken my car".

    It's not fair! Steven's broken all his cars and now he's trying to take mine.
     
  12. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I find most of these "applications" to be off the mark.

    Present perfect does not express whether an action still continues, whether it has the potency of happening again, whether it is evident now, or whether it has an impact on the present. Such things have to worked out from context.

    Present perfect is about what has been, whether it still is, is again, or is no more. It is not about a present state except the state of "having done" whatever it is.

    I think "that I've scraped together from the Internet" fits your context better.

    I would be perfectly content to say:

    A storm blew down the telephone lines, so we’re stuck here!
    I lost my keys and I can't get in my house.
    Someone ate my soup and I have nothing more to eat.
    Mom, Kevin let the cat out.
    [We have to go look for the cat again.]

    In such cases, I find simple past to be to-the-point and present perfect to be rather understated and indirect.
     
  13. vertigo12

    vertigo12 Member

    Mexico
    Thai - Thailand
    Thanks for your insight, Forero!
    You see, the problem is I'm not a native speaker of English or Spanish in which the present perfect is said to be used somewhat similarly. I just don't have an idea of what you mean when you say "Present perfect is about what has been, whether it still is, is again, or is no more. It is not about a present state except the state of "having done" whatever it is". Doesn't ring a bell at all. There are no feelings about tenses in my mind like simple past being "to-the-point" and present perfect being "understated and indirect". But of course I can understand how you can find them to be that way. You're a native speaker after all. And for me to understand the present perfect it has to be very specific. Hope what I just typed makes sense to you :)

    Thank you everybody who has contributed to this thread! Not that I've come to terms with this verb form, but hopefully after thousands of analyses like that it'll get clearer.
     
  14. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Forero's account refers to American usage. It's well known that many US speakers use the past tense in situations where British speakers will use the present perfect. Your descriptions in #1 are all perfectly correct for BE, except for the choice of "break".
     
  15. Vronsky Senior Member

    Russian - Russia
    You explained the issue by basically saying, "Present perfect is present perfect, whatever it is." :)
     
  16. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Though I find the explanations to be off the mark in terms of what the present perfect actually means, and though I find some of the examples "understated and indirect", all the examples are perfectly correct in AmE too, except for the choice of "break".
    True, I have not explained in this thread what the present perfect is except by using another perfect. But I am saying something important about what it is not.

    By "whatever it is" I am not referring to whatever the present perfect is, which the "grammar pages out there" are attempting to explain. I am using '"done" whatever it is' to refer to whatever action is being talked about in past participle form (e.g. "been in AA since 2000", ''flown in a helicopter many times", "become almost fluent in German", "broken her leg", "damaged my car", "blown down the telephone lines", "lost my keys", "eaten my soup", "let the cat out", "heard what?").

    "Having done", by the way is tenseless. It was a perfect gerund my sentence, not present perfect tense.

    The present perfect is about an action or state (e.g. being in AA, flying in a helicopter, becoming almost fluent, breaking a leg, damaging a car, blowing down telephone lines, losing keys, eating soup, letting a cat out, hearing something) in the past, i.e. not in a time period that includes "now" but in a time period ending "now".

    In other words, "I have damaged my car" is about now having damaged my car, not about now damaging my car. Damaging my car occurred in the past ("when damaging my car" is a time in the past).

    "Having damaged my car" does not mean "when damaging my car" but "after damaging my car", and "now that I have damaged my car" means "now after I damaged my car", not "Now that I damage my car".

    In other words, "I have damaged my car" is not about something I do now or a state that is evident now. When I say "I have damaged my car", I might still be damaging my car now, I might be getting it fixed now, I might already have it all fixed now, or I might be damaging it again now. "I have damaged my car" is about damage done before "now".

    I find the use of phrases like "and still continues", "and has the potency of happening again", and "change ... that is evident now" to be misleading and confusing in an explanation of the meaning of present perfect because, to me, the present perfect is never about action in the present.

    "I have damaged my car" does say that "having damaged my car" is a state in the present, but that state is not something "evident" or with "potency of happening again". It is just my state of existing in the time after the action occurred.

    I hope this helps.
     
  17. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    Hi Vertigo,

    I'd just like to add an additional point I didn't make earlier.

    There is one use of the present perfect where I've crashed my car wouldn't impinge directly on the present in the obvious way I indicated earlier.

    We also use the present perfect to explain the record of our experiences. To ask about something in this sense we often use the word ever:

    Have you ever been to Spain? - Yes, I've been to Spain.
    Have you crashed your car? - Yes, I've crashed my car (ie. it's one of the things I've done in the course of my life).

    Very often the question (without the ever) will refer to a recent event to explain a present circumstance, but it can also be asking if you have crashing the car in the sum total of your experiences.
     
  18. boozer Senior Member

    Bulgaria
    Bulgarian
    Well, maybe not directly, TT, but your present life experience must have some relevance now, in the present.

    In fact, it is this present relevance that makes the tense 'present'. It makes us use the present-tense form of 'have' and classify the whole tense as present. The tense is present both in form and meaning even though it refers to past actions. Leave this present-time relevance aside and we are left with no reason whatsoever to use the present perfect and, instead, we switch to the simple past.
     
  19. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    I wonder if I made myself clear then, Boozer.

    I'm not saying more than that someone asking for a record of the things you have done might ask, "Have you ever seen a green mamba?"

    Certainly you might answer, "Yes, I saw one in Burkina Faso in 1948".

    But you might also answer simply "Yes, I have seen a green mamba". That would be to say that seeing a green mamba is one of the things you have done.

    It's this use of the present perfect I'm talking about.

    It doesn't seem to me to impinge on the present in the same way as "I've crashed my car, so I can't drive you to the doctor's", or "I've seen a green mamba, so I'm not going outside in my slippers".
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2018
  20. boozer Senior Member

    Bulgaria
    Bulgarian
    And all I was saying was that, yes, it seems to impinge less on the present, but it always does in some way because the present perfect is strictly a present tense. :) I do not think we disagree here. We are likely focusing on the two sides of the same thing.
     
  21. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    So you don't see them as different discrete uses of the same tense?
     
  22. boozer Senior Member

    Bulgaria
    Bulgarian
    Well, if you put it that way, perhaps not. :oops::) For me, the very fact that the present perfect is being used, indicates some present-time relevance. When you say 'I have seen a green mamba', you talk of your present experience, accumulated over the years though it is. And your present experience affects your present by simply being there.
     
  23. boozer Senior Member

    Bulgaria
    Bulgarian
    Oh, wait
    I have crashed my car = happened not long ago so my car is now crashed
    I have crashed my car = that is part of my experience, although it may have happened long ago

    In that sense, yes, they can be seen as different, discrete uses of the same tense. The present-time relevance is what unites them although that may be a different kind of relevance...
     
  24. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    Yes, fine, thank you. I can quite see that.

    My point was that in saying 'I have seen a green mamba' I might be presenting this as an item among the collective handbag of my experiences - a reply to "Have you ever seen a green mamba?".

    Or I might be presenting it as an explanation of my present behaviour and follow it with "So I'm not going out in slippers".

    In the first instance you'd not expect the other person to be alarmed - after all, if I saw it back in 1948, there is no immediate cause for alarm.

    In the second instance I might well expect the other person to be alarmed, and say "I can't stand snakes; I'm not going out today". That's when I need to explain that the snake was curled round the bottom of the lavatory bowl.

    It's in this way that I see the degree of encroachment on the present as different in the two cases.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2018
  25. boozer Senior Member

    Bulgaria
    Bulgarian
    Yes, while you were explaining all that, I think I finally saw your point - see my message above. :)
     
  26. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    My point is that recentness is not part of what present perfect actually expresses.

    "I have crashed my car" does not state or inevitably imply that my car is now crashed or that the event of crashing it was recent.

    It always means a crash is part of my experience, whether recent or not so recent. Where present perfect differs from simple past is here:

    I have crashed my car since yesterday.:tick:
    I have crashed my car a moment ago.:cross:

    Both sentences may refer to the same crash, but whereas "since yesterday" refers to a time interval between "yesterday" and "now", a perfect context for present perfect, "a moment ago" refers to a time that ended before "now", so present perfect does not fit.

    Similarly "I have crashed my car since 1970" works, but "I have crashed my car several years ago" does not.

    Notice that, even though "a moment ago" is a point in the time interval "since yesterday", the two adverbials just don't work together:

    I have crashed my car a moment ago since yesterday.:cross:
    I crashed my car a moment ago since yesterday.:cross:


    Similarly:

    I've crashed my car before.:tick: [Here "before" may mean either "before the most recent crash" or "before now".]
    Now I've crashed my car.:tick: [Perhaps not long ago, I hadn't crashed it, but I did crash it at some point in time before now.]
    Now I've crashed my car before.:confused:

    None of this changes the essential meaning of the present perfect. "I've crashed my car" means exactly the same thing in all three sentences I have marked with a :tick:, that a crash of my car is part of my experience.

    The same applies whether the crash occurred long ago or just a moment ago, whether I have gotten it fixed or not, and whether it still makes that stupid noise or not.
     
  27. boozer Senior Member

    Bulgaria
    Bulgarian
    I think TT's point is that the present relevance of crashing the car is slighly different, Forero.
    I've crashed the car = the car is now wrecked and unusable + I have the experience
    I've crashed my car = I have thh experience (happened long enough ago, the car itself is now irrelevant)

    In the first example we have the added meaning of a car being now unusable in addition to the accumulated experience. I think this is TT's point and I recognise the different focus. Of course, there is a lot in common.
     
  28. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    The actual sentence means I have the experience. The speaker is free to think something without saying it, which would make the first example an understatement, would it not?

    From what I can tell, the current state of the car is not expressed by that sentence any more than it would be by past tense "I crashed the car". The supposed "added meaning" is all from something the speaker may or may not be imagining, not the sentence itself.

    Does "unpleasantness" truly mean "civil war", or "pond", "ocean"?
     

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