Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Present Perfect I

English with all of its tenses poses many learning problems for students, none of which are worse than that strange creature, the present perfect.  For those who were sleeping during that lesson, that is the tense that has the verb to have in the present tense followed by the V3 (or past participle), i.e. the sun has risen. 

The problem with this tense is that it only basically exists in English.  The French passé compose is really a past of completed action, as in J’ai vu le film.  In other words, the English past simple is its equivalent.  Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic, to name just a few, don’t even anything like it. 

This means that it is hard for English language learners to intuitively understand what it means while native English speakers never formally study it, absorbing it from the air.  I would suggest a comparative approach.  Examine the following three sentences:

a.      I ate hot chilies.

b.      I eat hot chilies.

c.       I have eaten hot chilies.

To confirm what you think, the first in the past simple;  the second in the present simple; and the third is in the present perfect.  The issue in hand is to define the difference between them.

a.      The first describes in a neutral fashion what you did in the past.  For example, someone wanted to know in which food contest you participated.   You indicate that you joined the chili eating contest (what hot fun!).

b.      This describes a habitual action.  For instance, if someone is preparing Kung Pao chicken, you explain that you have no problem with that.

c.       This describes something that is relevant NOW, no matter when you did it in the past.  For example, if your friend accuses you of being a wimp because you don’t like hot food, you feel attacked and defend yourself. 

As you can see, the present perfect in this meaning is an emotional statement about now: I have finished and I want to go home; I have seen the movie and can recommend it; I have eaten and am not hungry.  In this sense, the reader or listener will read a meaning into verb.

There is another use for the present perfect, but that is the subject of another blog.

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