I can't get my head around it! - Present Perfect and Past Simple


Pubblicato da Alessandro

Among the many challenges that a student is bound to come across in the fatiguing and arduous (rewarding though) process of learning English, grasping the difference between the present perfect and the past simple (or perfect and past tenses in general) is often considered one of the most difficult.

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The rules governing the differential use of these tenses appear to many almost unfathomable. And what is most interesting, is that mistakes keep occurring even at advanced levels, quite consistently, especially in spoken English.

My experience as a teacher taught me that even the most talented or educated or committed student tends to fall over the present perfect; furthermore, even after discussing, studying, and practicing it, one month of disuse is sufficient to get one’s knowledge rusty and cause a setback in one’s path towards the desired learning goals.

Let’s be honest, traditional teaching, especially in Italy, does not always help. Put your hand up if your teacher at school gave you this explanation: “now, we use the past simple for past completed actions and the present perfect for actions which began in the past but are still going on”. This is, according to the experience of many, the standard way of teaching the present perfect in Italian schools. And of course, it’s wrong.

Now, in all fairness, this is not entirely wrong. It is just incredibly laconic and very lazy teaching. Surely, when something began in the past and is still going on in the present, a perfect tense is perfectly suitable. In this case, we can use the present perfect or the present perfect continuous, as the case may be. That being said, this single instance is far from exhausting the long list of circumstances where the English grammar demands the use of this tense.

And here it comes a problem. The actual rules are many, often complicated and cumbersome to remember (sometimes to explain). The temptation to try to reduce this complicacy deriving a simple, general rule from this galaxy of grammar technicalities is compelling. It is, however, a temptation which must be resisted.

Languages are complicated, whether we like it or no. We must come to terms with the complexity of our language and the complexity of the language we are set on learning. Failing to do so amount, in my view, to a lack of respect. Forcefully trying to reduce the complexity of language into the procrustean bed of our desire for simplicity is an act of cultural intolerance.

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Nonetheless, the desire for simplicity is not culpable in itself. Learning is hard, a multi-layered activity. One cannot start studying maths from calculus or physics from quantum mechanics. Learning requires simplicity and simplicity, in turns, means cutting something off, simplifying, skimming over the “tops” of the most complicated stuff.

We should aim for simplicity, but with a caveat: we must know that our simplified schemes are just a tool; like a bike that we can ride for a while, up to a point where it is fit for purpose; when the track gets too rocky, jagged, and steep and our bike struggles to carry on, we must leave it for something better. This is learning, adopting a set of notions for a while and then leaving it when we have squeezed it as much as possible, when we have made the most of it.

Accordingly, I’ll now give you two simple rules (which are actually one: the former consists of a corollary of the latter). These rules do not exhaust the range of the present perfect and the past simple, they don’t work every time. Sometimes they fail or their proper application may be less apparent. Nonetheless, my experience can be summoned to testify in favour of their usefulness in most cases.

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Present Perfect and Past Simple rules

  1. When you have a precise time reference in the past, you use a past tense and never the present perfect
  2. When the emphasis of the discourse is placed on the action and/or its consequences, use the present perfect; when the emphasis is on the time of the action, use the past simple.

Let’s see some examples of rule n 1):

  • I went to the beach yesterday. Is cut clear: yesterday is definite time reference in the past. The same applies to expressions such as: the last year, the last month, few days ago, few minutes ago etc.
  • What did you do at school? Should be clear as well. At school here means “when you were at school”. 
  • A: When did you buy this t-shirt? B: I bought it more than one year ago. Is a question. Usually, questions starting with “when” take the past simple; and so do the answers.
  • I read your offer in the newspaper. Is still available? Can be quite tricky. However, the expression “in the newspaper” pins the action down to the past when the speaker was reading the newspaper.

Now we are going to see some examples pertaining to rule n. 2

  1. I have never watched the Godfather
  2. I have lost my wallet!
  3. I have always lived in Milan
  4. Paul has bought a new car and he can’t help constantly showing it off!
  5. The police have finally captured the fugitive.
  6. Have you already read this book?
  7. Look at what you have done!

All these examples have one thing in common. The emphasis is on the action or its consequences and it doesn’t matter the time of the action.

Take example a). It doesn’t matter the time of the action, it only matters that “I have never watched the Godfather”. The same applies to b): here the focus is on the consequences: I have lost my wallet, which means that I don’t have it now.

We can take these examples and convert them in cases where the past simple would fit. For example: 

  • “I have lost my wallet” becomes: “I lost my wallet at the party”
  • “The police have finally captured the fugitive” becomes: “The police captured the fugitive the last night”
  • “Have you already read this book?” becomes. “When did you finish this book?”

These rules are very simple. They are also insufficient. Remember what I wrote above: simplicity is useful, but it shouldn’t be worshipped or taken without restrictions. My tips can work in many cases, but there will be some instances where they won’t be enough.

Sentences with “since” for example can be quite tricky; expressions such as today, this week, this morning… refer to the present but they take the past simple when we consider the period as over.

That being said, my guess is that these two simple tips will do to help you pass your English class.


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