Friday, September 10, 2010

Present perfect: The British-American difference

A couple of weeks ago, I was wondering if there was any truth to a British journalist's lament that the present perfect tense, which he claimed as "distinctively British," was disappearing under the pernicious influence of American English. Lynne Murphy, who's both a linguist and "Lynneguist" at her blog, Separated by a Common Language, promised a post on the  question, and now it's here.

You'll want to read it all, naturally, but here's a bit of her summing-up:
There is nothing unAmerican about the present perfect. We can and do use it in the ways that the British do. We just aren't restricted to it. There is something unBritish about using the preterit with certain temporal adverbs in particular and perhaps also more generally to refer to recent-and-still-relevant events. The difference between Did you eat yet? and Have you eaten already? is, in AmE, mostly a difference of formality, possibly also of emphasis.
Imagine that. Once again, the language has failed (present perfect!) to go to hell in a handbasket. Thanks, Lynne!


Unknown said...

Is "couple of weeks" correct? Should "of" be used in this instance? Are you using the word "couple" to mean two? You would not say "two of weeks," so why is "couple of weeks" correct?

Anonymous said...

It's quite as correct as "a pair of shoes"! Both "couple" and "pair", in the sense of "set of two" are always used with "of".

Benji said...

Interesting post. Reminds me of a quotation from an old copy of Reader's Digest: English is a weird language. Fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing.