Saturday, August 28, 2010

Has the present perfect gone missing?

Guy Keleny, writing the Errors & Omissions column for the Independent, declares that those slovenly Americans are stealing the present perfect tense from the English language. He objects to a usage in his own paper: "Rather than meeting up and talking about what we want to post online, we just add to what someone – maybe on the other side of the world – already wrote."

From this slender evidence he generalizes sweepingly:
Any time up to about 10 years ago any British writer would have said "add to what someone has already written" [my italics].
Under the influence of American usage, the present perfect form of the verb ("has written") is losing ground to the past simple ("wrote"). In British English, the past simple merely signifies an action in the past, whereas the present perfect describes a state of affairs in the present brought about by an action in the past – we now are in a world where somebody "has written". American English, with only the past simple to call on, fails to mark that distinction.
Have you noticed the disappearance of the present perfect in American English? I have not – though of course I've seen "he wrote" in casual contexts where more formal prose would call for "he has written." Is the present perfect really "distinctively British," as Keleny's headline claims? Is its use diminishing in British English, and if so, is it Americans' fault? I'm not good enough at Zimmering* to test these assertions properly (and I'm about to be off the grid for a bit), but perhaps one of the adepts – Mark Liberman or Ben Zimmer himself – can show me how it's done.

Or maybe Keleny will reveal his evidence. But I suspect his lamentation is based on mere sentiment, seasoned with a dash of prejudice. 

*"Wait, I'm not ready to be an eponym!" Zimmer tweeted in response to this coinage. Too late, Ben!

12 comments:

lynneguist said...

The lesser occurrence of the perfect (and the resulting greater use in the simple past) in AmE versus BrE is something that comes up a lot in my life. (At least some) British folk will tell you that they need a time modifier with a simple past.

So, something like 'I saw that film' sounds wrong to at least some BrE speakers, who would prefer 'I've seen that film', but they could say 'I saw that film yesterday'. (Apparently)

It's something I started a blog post about years ago...but then I never got (a)round to finishing it.

There's a section about it in John Algeo's British or American English. But rather than paraphrase what he's said (if I haven't done so already in the first paragraph!), I'll resolve to finish that blog post soon. I'll try to make it the next one.

Damien Hall said...

Being able to write sentences like the one in the example at the top of this post is certainly much more a characteristic of American English than it is of British English. It's not that American English doesn't use the present perfect, of course; just that there are contexts like this where both tenses are permissible in (different sociolects of) American English, but where the vast majority of British English still uses the present perfect exclusively, so, of course, these contexts are noticeable to speakers of British English.

I wrote a paper on this (unpublished as yet!) in about 2005. It was a sociolinguistic study of the relationship between simple past / perfect tense verbs and 'perfect' or 'past' meaning for speakers of American English (I was in Philadelphia at the time with no easy access to a good sample of British-English speakers) - I found, roughly and if I remember correctly, that acceptability of the simple past in sentences like the example you quote was approximately inversely proportional to number of years in education. The more education a speaker had had, the less likely they were to find sentences like that acceptable.

steve b said...

To my mind, the main function of the present pefect is to glance at an event in the past (or an event that began in the past) while your main focus remains in the present.

"John has finished work for the day. He rises wearily from his desk..." If you limit yourself to the simple past: "John finished work for the day..." you have to continue "...he rose wearily..."; you're stuck in the past.

How else do you manage this dual focus, which is sometimes essential?

steve b said...

@lynneguist As I say above (and as I remarked to you via Twitter) I believe it's a matter of having a definite temporal anchor point.

"I saw that film yesterday" is anchored. "I have [present] seen that film" is also anchored; the temporal focus is in the present. The past reference is a mere glance, what matters is that you have (possess) now the "seen that film" experience.

"I saw that film" is anchored neither at a definite place in the past nor in the present. That sounds awkward to me as a BrE speaker (and someone who as a research project tried to reduce tense and aspect to something a computer could handle).

Perhaps I'm expecting too much logic of the English language :)

Zhoen said...

As an AM/E speaker, I have never really used the present perfect. My spouse and I discussed it recently, and although I could understand the concept, I can not remember ever learning it, or seeing any compelling use for it. It seems a very subtle intonation that I would signal other ways, or not bother to differentiate.

Although I consider myself educated and fluent, a daily amateur writer, I am by no means a linguist nor a student of my own language.

lynneguist said...

@Zhoen: Watch out! There's a present perfect in the sentence in which you claim not to use the present perfect!

Or was that intentional? :)

ambrosechapel said...

The present perfect, for some reason, is the very favourite tense of Australian police reporting.

Whenever there's a cop being interviewed on the news about some incident, they never say "the two men entered the bank at 2PM, they produced sawn-off shotguns and escaped with a large amount of cash" they say "the two men have entered the bank, they've produced sawn-off shotguns and they've escaped" etc.

empty said...

Lately I sometimes catch myself using the simple past and wishing I had used the present perfect instead. So that's a bit of first-hand evidence for a trend toward slovenliness.

Corey said...

You make me love English.

lynneguist said...

Never mind my first comment. Read this instead, please: http://bit.ly/b4XVRo

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Anonymous said...

Here in Buenos Aires the perfective is pretty uncommon, having merged almost completely with the preterite. Yet every once in a while there's no way to express what you mean without the perfective. As my Spanish teacher here told me years ago, if you're using the perfective more than once a day you're probably overdoing it! It takes a while to move from one dialect to another and remove a contrast, but I've gotten to the point where I find the perfective to sound foreign (e.g. my Peruvian friends use it), and I'm now able to say "Nunca lo vi" (I never saw it) when I mean the same as "Nunca lo he visto" (I've never seen it".
Ron Smyth