Wh- questions with present perfect

Hacuk

New Member
Hungarian
Hi everyone!

In my last thread I couldn't really convey what I want to ask. So I'm making a new one.

My problem is about -wh questions in present perfect. I hardly hear any except the typical "textbook" questions like "What have you done?", "Where have you been?", "Where has he gone?", "How have you been?", "How many films have you seen?"

I guess it's because of this rule:
https://www.ef.com/wwen/english-resources/english-grammar/present-perfect/: "When we want to give or ask details about when, where, who, we use the simple past."
Present perfect simple and past simple | Learn and Practise Grammar: "We often use the present perfect to start a conversation about our experiences. If we want to ask about or give more details, we use the past simple."

From this I can puzzle together that when you ask about who, where, when, how, you use the past simple.
However, what about other questions words?

For example the typical textbook announcement:

Anna has broken her arm.

When I ask about this I ask:
Who broke their arm?
Where/when/how did she break her arm?

But what about:
What/What's happened to her arm?
Which arm did she break?/ Which arm has she broken?

Or another example:

I've brought some sandwiches with me.

Who brought sandwiches?
When/where/how did you make sandwiches?

But what about:
How many sandwiches did you bring/ have you brought?
Why did you bring so many sandwiches/ why have you brought so many sandwiches?
What did you bring/ what have you brought?

So what tense should be used when the question words are not when, where, who and how? Can present perfect be used? And if yes, then why is it so rare to hear -wh questions in the present perfect?
 
  • You may use present perfect with questions beginning with when, where, who, and how. Context is relevant.

    How many sandwiches have you brought? :tick: What have you brought? :tick:

    ADDED for clarity: These sentences are checked as fine for grammar. As Thomas T points out, below, they may or may not fit (be appropriate usage for) a given situation.
     
    Last edited:

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Questions about events in the past are naturally asked using the simple past: What did you buy?

    Questions about the present impact of past events are naturally asked using the present perfect: What have you bought?

    In other words, all the usual factors affecting the choice between the two tenses apply.

    They are notoriously difficult for foreigners to master.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It sounds to me as though you've got a good command of these issues, Hacuk.

    One point which is worth mentioning is that we use the past perfect for inventories of past experiences. If you do something it becomes part of your inventory, it becomes something you have done. The past perfect often is saying simply that the experience is in your inventory.

    I should have welcomed you to the forum. :)

    It might be worth adding that we don't use the present perfect with expressions of time - we don't say I have done it five minutes ago :cross::thumbsdown::warning: This means that we don't readily ask questions starting When, using the present perfect.
     
    Last edited:
    TT//This means that we don't readily ask questions starting When, using the present perfect.//

    Your own very incisive remark, "we use the past perfect for inventories of past experiences. " gives a clue as to a variety of uses of present perfect with "when."

    A to B: "You are always so selfish."
    B: "Why do you say that?"
    A: "When have you (ever) done something for someone, where you didn't immediately benefit?"
    B (gives an inventory): "1) I drove across town 15 miles to take your little sister to the hospital; 2) I volunteer at 'Meals for the Homeless' once a week; 3) I volunteer as a board member of the XX Street Kids Mission.
    ===

    A to B: You never give to charity.
    B: I certainly do. Let me think of some examples.
    A: I've lived with you and I have never seen it. When have you given to charities?
    B: I gave $500 to the Botanical Gardens of XX, last year. I gave $200 to the Red Cross the year before.
    A: I didn't know about those cases. I apologize.
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    In American English the range of things we commonly use present perfect for is generally more limited than what BE speakers use it for. Both are grammatically correct, but for us the reason not to use simple past generally needs to be stronger. Why use two words when one will do and seems more appropriate?

    But what about:
    What/What's happened to her arm?
    Which arm did she break?/ Which arm has she broken?
    Whatever happened to her arm is over. It's not continually happening. It began and ended in the past. Most AE speakers see that as a completed event and use simple past.

    Started breaking arm
    |
    Finished breaking arm
    |
    Past ends, Present begins
    (What happened to her arm? Which arm did she break?)

    How many sandwiches did you bring/ have you brought?
    Why did you bring so many sandwiches/ why have you brought so many sandwiches?
    What did you bring/ what have you brought?
    "How many sandwiches did you bring/ have you brought?"

    This one is fuzzier because the sandwiches are going to be eaten at some future point so the reason for bringing them is an ongoing reason. It's not a completed situation. But the actual bringing of the sandwiches is completed. I think both choices (bring and have brought) will be used by various AE speakers. I still expect bring will be used most.

    "Why did you bring so many sandwiches/ why have you brought so many sandwiches?"

    This one focuses on the action of bringing. I would expect much more use of past simple. That action is over.
     

    Hacuk

    New Member
    Hungarian
    Thank you for your new replies everyone!

    ....However, now that I've read your replies again I've realised that there are some things in them which I don't think I understand yet.

    Questions about the present impact of past events are naturally asked using the present perfect: What have you bought?

    So, if I understand you correctly, If I ask someone [What did you buy?], then it's a neutral question where I expect an item to be named, nothing else, no real impact on the present whatsoever?
    But if I ask [What have you bought?] then I expect some impact on present?

    This one is fuzzier because the sandwiches are going to be eaten at some future point so the reason for bringing them is an ongoing reason.

    How would you define an ongoing reason?
    Could you provide some examples if you have the time to contrast between an ongoing reason and a completed reason?

    I'm getting the feeling that I shouldn't get hung up on these things because it's only going to make my understanding of the topic worse. It's just that most of the time I don't see/hear present perfect outside of announcements, have you... life experience and have you...yet questions, and already, just, still, yet sentences.

    Regardless,
    Thank you everyone for replying. :)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    But if I ask [What have you bought?] then I expect some impact on present?
    The question often suggests that the other person will have the purchase with them, so it can be inspected by the two of them.

    That is what I meant by an impact on the present.

    We could also say What did you buy? in such circumstances, but that would stress the eventive nature of the purchase, and be much less of an invitation to exhibit what had been bought.
     
    Last edited:

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Questions about events in the past are naturally asked using the simple past: What did you buy?

    Questions about the present impact of past events are naturally asked using the present perfect: What have you bought?
    This is the key to everything and presumably where the differences between AE and BE arise. In many situations AE speakers see no true present impact that BE speakers see.

    Buying something is a discrete act. You pick it out, you take it to the counter, you hand over your money, they put it in a bag and you leave. The buying process is complete.

    Later on, it's still complete, so Americans tend to ask "What did you buy?" There is nothing about the transaction that is ongoing. The money was handed over and the transaction completed hours ago. It can't be undone or modified and no part of it will continue or complete in the future. It is something that happened in the past.

    Now imagine a situation where people are bringing donations to a charity event. They take their donations to a table to hand them over. Someone sitting at the table might say, "So what have you brought us?" The transaction is ongoing. They haven't turned over their item yet. There is a real present impact. The bringing won't really be complete until the item is turned over and in the possession of the charity. Present perfect has a place. But some AE speakers might still say, "What did you bring us?" if they see the act of traveling to the event (the transportation phase) as complete.
     
    Last edited:

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    A good illustration might be Hacuk might be the difference between. What did you do? and What have you done?

    You ask What did you do? when you want an account of events.

    What have you done?
    is what you'd say when you thought the other person had done something terrible, maybe a murder, or an act of theft, or a personal rejection which will lead to recriminations. The impact on the present is perhaps more clear in that sort of instance.
     

    Hacuk

    New Member
    Hungarian
    So if I understand you correctly kentix and Thomas the difference between the AE and the BrE usage is this:

    In AE we only use present perfect sentences when the action is still ongoing at the moment of mentioning it or when we know/think it will continue.

    However, in BrE we also use present perfect when the action is completed at the moment of mentioning it but it has a big impact on the present.

    And naturally we make questions based on these rules too.

    Am I thinking correctly? Have I finally got this?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Am I thinking correctly? Have I finally got this?
    Yes. It's potentially misleading to say that the action must have a big impact on the present; don't forget my inventory of experiences point, and 'big impact' is a little strong for something like 'What have you bought?' which is often no more than an invitation to the purchaser to show what's in a shopping bag.

    The Americans use the present perfect much less than the Brits. I'm often surprised in American films when they use the simple past where we would use the present perfect.
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    One more AE example to show how strongly we default to simple past:

    Say I'm in the kitchen preparing a meal with someone. Then I hear them cry out. I might respond "What happened?" They might reply "I (just) cut my finger!" They are still bleeding, they are still feeling pain, they are still dealing with the situation – there's a present impact in that sense – but they still use past tense because the act of cutting is complete. It's not ongoing. They could say, "I've cut my finger" in AE, and some people might, but to me it sounds like the less likely option. I can't imagine it coming out of my mouth spontaneously.

    I imagine the opposite is generally true in BE. (Tell me if I'm wrong.)

    But I would say, "I've cut my finger before."

    don't forget my "inventory of experiences" point
    This fits that category.

    I have done it before and since I'm not dead I might do it again. My life is one ongoing experience with impact throughout so perfect use fits.
     
    Last edited:

    Hacuk

    New Member
    Hungarian
    The AE way of thinking about the past is much more similar to my native language's way of thinking about the past. I guess that's why I'm always leaning toward past simple in these type of situations. Too bad my final exams are going to be in BrE. It seems I'll have to get used to using present perfect more often. :D
    Nevertheless, I cannot thank you all for thoroughly explaining the topic.
     
    One more AE example to show how strongly we default to simple past:

    Say I'm in the kitchen preparing a meal with someone. Then I hear them cry out. I might respond "What happened?" They might reply "I (just) cut my finger!" They are still bleeding, they are still feeling pain, they are still dealing with the situation – there's a present impact in that sense – but they still use past tense because the act of cutting is complete. It's not ongoing. They could say, "I've cut my finger" in AE, and some people might, but to me it sounds like the less likely option. I can't imagine it coming out of my mouth spontaneously.

    I imagine the opposite is generally true in BE. (Tell me if I'm wrong.)

    But I would say, "I've cut my finger before."


    This fits that category.

    I have done it before and since I'm not dead I might do it again. My life is one ongoing experience with impact throughout so perfect use fits.

    With respect: My impression on your first para example is that British folks would be more likely to use pres. pft.
    I, native AE, would more likely not. We'll ask our UK friends for input.

    Oops. Did I misread you?
     
    Last edited:

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Yes. Apparently (on the first pass).

    What I said about AE is my impression, at least. I tried putting myself in that mental state and saying "I've cut my finger" and just couldn't do it and feel natural. It seemed wordy. Maybe I'm not a very good actor. :oops::D
     
    Last edited:
    Top