One of the unique features that distinguishes English from many other languages is its perfect verb tenses. And, let me tell you, they are a thing of beauty! That's right, there's no need to fear them, because they are quite logical and come in handy in conversation.
So, if the idea of reading about grammar isn't exactly your cup of tea, don't run away reader! I swear I'll keep this short and sweet. And the best part, you won't have a headache by the time you are through! (Or at least, I'll give you a warning!)
Ok, so today I'll be telling you the story of one of the perfect verb tenses, the present perfect. And, it'll be a detective story. Well, almost. A case of stolen shoes? No, no, don't laugh! It will be interesting, I promise.
Let's start with a hypothetical situation. When a friend tells you, "Someone has stolen my shoes," what does his use of the present perfect tell us about when the theft happened?
First of all, you wouldn't be wrong to check whether your friend is barefoot. Now, why do I say that? That's because the present perfect can refer to events that happened right about now or shortly before.
The speaker is recounting an event that happened recently and matters or requires action right now
Now, from the point of view of your friend, why say "someone has stolen my shoes" as opposed to "someone stole my shoes?"
The "has stolen" emphasizes that the action has happened in the recent past and is of importance to the present moment. In other words, there's something we can do about it now. So, you could imagine a situation with your friend running up to you, out of breath and screaming at the top of his lungs, "Someone has stolen my shoes!" The importance to the present moment, as I call it, may involve a call to action.
Your friend may want you to go find the thief. Perhaps, he could ask you to report the incident to the police. On the other hand, the expected action may be something a lot less dramatic—he may just want you to console him for his loss.
If the speaker isn't concerned or doesn't want to take action about a recent event, the simple past may be used instead of the present perfect
But, what if your friend told you, "Someone stole my shoes" (the simple past tense) instead of "someone has stolen my shoes?" The use of the simple past to describe a recently-occurred event leaves open the question of whether the speaker is concerned about what just happened and wants to do something about it. Saying "Someone stole my shoes" right after it happened may just mean that the event is a closed issue that doesn't require an emotional response or an intervention.
I'll provide two examples to illustrate this difference. In the first case, an incident that occurred recently is being talked about in the present perfect. This demonstrates the speaker's concern about it and a desire for some kind of response. If your friend calls the police hoping they'll track down the shoe thief, he may tell the policeman, "Oh my god, someone has stolen my shoes, you've gotta help me find them!"
In the second case, the very same shoe theft incident is discussed in the simple past. In this instance, the speaker is not concerned about what just happened and doesn't feel the need for a response or an intervention. If your friend wants to tell his sister how happy he is to be rid of those shoes that he didn't even like in the first place, he will say "Oh, someone stole my shoes. Good riddance, I hated those ugly sneakers anyway."
(Note: If you want the article to be short and sweet, please stop here! It gets more complicated from this point on.)
The speaker is referring to events that aren't recent but that matter for the present moment
While you are pondering whether the stolen shoes were really gorgeous or ugly and whether the friend of our story was happy or upset about their theft, I've got to focus your mind on a totally different issue. You see, there is a very quirky complication to the use of the present perfect.
The tense can be used to discuss an event that has been going on a minute ago or a month ago or even a year ago, as long as it still matters for the present moment (Matters, as in the speaker is either very concerned or wants to take action about the event). So, let's imagine our dastardly sneaker thief was caught. A policeman calls your friend and says, "Your sister has stolen your shoes."
Now, the point in time when the sister stole the shoes may have happened weeks or months before the police notified your friend about it. And yet, her stealing the shoes is talked about in the present perfect because the action in question still matters in the present moment. In this case, the action matters because the crime has just been solved and the crime victim has just been notified that his stolen property has been recovered.
To sum it up, the present perfect is used for past actions that aren't all that recent as long as they have present consequences. That's why the policeman could say "She has stolen the shoes, so she deserves to go to jail." six months after the date of the incident.
The speaker is describing an event that isn't recent but that's still continuing in the present moment
The present perfect can likewise be used for actions that have started in the past and are continuing in the present moment. Hence, the theft victim could say "I've worried about my stolen shoes" to mean that he has started worrying about them six months ago and is continuing to worry about them at the present moment.
The speaker wants to emphasize that he had a certain experience but doesn't want to offer any further details.
So far, we have seen that the present perfect can be used in the following cases:
● to discuss an event that has just happened,
● to emphasize concern or need for action regarding a recent event
● to talk about a past event that still matters in the present (once again, in terms of concern or need for action), or
● to describe an event that has started a while ago but still continues in the present.
But, there are some uses of the past perfect that I haven't mentioned.
For example, to indicate an event whose point in time and duration is vague. "I have been to the sea" and "I have eaten pizza" can both be said with the intention of communicating the simple message that you have done something without providing any further information.
In this case, you are simply telling the other person that you've had the experience of doing it. In the following exchange —
Q: Did you see this movie
A: Yes, I have seen it.
Q: Have you ever vacationed in the mountains?
A: Yes, I have vacationed in the mountains.
— the whole point of the answer is to show that you had actually done it and to leave out the details of when and how many times.
As in the last case, the speaker emphasizes that he had a certain experience. This time he gives some details, but they are very imprecise.
A similar way of using the present perfect is to emphasize that you had a certain experience while pointing out a vague or imprecise period during which it happened. In answer to the question, "Have you (ever) baked a cake?", you could reply, "Yes, I've indeed baked a cake a couple of times" or "Yes, I've baked cakes as a child and later as teenager."
As you can see from these sentences, the action has happened more than once, but the information given isn't enough to say precisely when or how often.
In conclusion: Quick review of the possible uses of the present perfect.
(A rather challenging read, you may wish to skip it.)
If I were to ask you in conversation one of these days, "Have you made an effort to understand my article about the present perfect?", what would you say?
If you tried to understand it three days ago, and want to tell me that you've succeeded, you might say: "I've made an effort, and I am pretty sure I got it now." (past action, with importance to the present moment.)
But, if your answer would simply be, "I have made an effort to read your article”, I wouldn't know what to make of it. Perhaps it would mean that you started making the effort to understand it a few minutes before I asked. It's even possible that you started trying to make sense of it three days ago and are continuing to do so at the moment you are telling me, "I've made an effort to understand it" (past action that is still continuing). Or maybe, just maybe, if you happen to be psychic, you read the article many years ago and tried to understand it back then (talking about a past action to emphasize that you've had the experience of doing it).
If you have a headache by now, please forgive me! I promised you wouldn't at the beginning of the article, but my appreciation of this tense has kept me talking and talking and talking. I am sorry I couldn't stop. But, if you learned something while reading this article, perhaps you'll forgive me.
Hero Image by Beth Punches (CC BY 2.0)