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A Journey with the Present Perfect, Part Two

A Journey With the Present Perfect, Part Two
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In a recent report, we explored how the present perfect was playing in a kind of language competition.

In today’s report, we will continue our journey with the present perfect. But this time, instead of talking about history, we will travel around the world. You will learn how the present perfect has different uses in different kinds of English.

Let’s begin with a few important terms and ideas.

What is the present perfect?

You can think about English verbs in terms of tense, aspect, and mood. Tense means time – present, past, or future. Aspect can suggest whether an action has been completed or not.

Mood is complex - do not worry too much about it today.

When we talk about the present perfect, we are talking about tense (the present) and we are talking about aspect (the term perfect).

The basic idea is that the present perfect suggests an action has been completed and has a connection to the present point in time in some way.

In a recent report, we talked about how Betty Azar, an English grammar expert, defines the present perfect. In her book Understanding and Using English Grammar, Azar describes the present perfect in terms of form and meaning. The form is have + past participle. The meaning is that “the perfect tenses all give the idea that one thing happens before another time or event.”

Here is an example:

I have already eaten.

“Have … eaten” suggests that the speaker ate at some point in the past. It also suggests the action of eating has some connection to the present moment in time. For example, perhaps another person asked if the speaker wanted to eat food.

This example shows you a general way in which the present perfect is used. But the present perfect has different uses in different kinds of English, as we will see.

Different kinds of English

In recent Everyday Grammar stories, we explored the present perfect in British English. We also explored how Americans have been using the simple past more often than the present perfect.

But there is another kind of English that uses the present perfect in an interesting way: Australian English.

A study in Linguistics looked at the use of the present perfect in a number of Australian radio broadcasts.

The lead writer, Marie-Eve Ritz, notes that speakers of Australian English often use the present perfect as a way to make stories seem more real. The researchers call this the “narrative use of the present perfect.”

The examples came from call-in radio shows where people described stories in a natural or everyday way.

The basic idea is that the speakers often used the present perfect in place of the simple past.

Here is an example from the research, a short part of a radio broadcast on Triple J radio Sydney. Note that an American voice is reading these words:

I looked over my shoulder, he’s standing right behind me. He’s WALKED in, y’know the doors that separate the classrooms, he’s COME in the one behind me, they all started laughing.

Note that the speaker began in the simple past with the words I looked over...

But then the speaker used short forms of “he has walked in” and “he has come” - the present perfect.

The study also gives an example of how speakers of Australian English sometimes change from the simple past to the present perfect after using the word then.

Consider this example, once again from Triple J radio Sydney.

…I just wanted to get out of the building as soon as possible. And THEN, about four of them HAVE COME UP to me and one guy’s on crutches

American English

In general, you will not hear this “narrative use of the present perfect” in American English.

Speakers of American English use something else to make past experiences seem more real - the so-called “historic present,” which you can read about in our previous Everyday Grammar story.

The basic idea is that Americans sometimes change from the past to the present when reporting speech or describing a past event.

The idea is that the change in verb tense makes the story seem more real and present to the listener or reader.

Closing thoughts

In today’s report, you learned about how some speakers of Australian English use the present perfect in an interesting way.

You also learned that Americans use a different kind of verb form to tell stories.

The next time you are watching films or news broadcasts in English, pay careful attention to the present perfect. Try to watch news broadcasts from different kinds of English – American, Australian, and so on. Over time, you will develop a deep understanding of the present perfect and how different English speakers use it.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.


Words in This Story

aspect – n. grammar : the characteristic of a verb that expresses the way an action happens. A verb's aspect shows whether an action happens one time and stops quickly, happens repeatedly, or happens continuously.

mood – n. grammar : a set of forms of a verb that show whether the action or state expressed by the verb is thought of as a fact, a command, or a wish or possibility

past participle – n. grammar: the form of the verb that is used with “have” in perfect tenses and with “be” in passive constructions

narrative – adj. having the form of a story; of or relating to the process of telling a story

crutch – n. a long stick with a padded piece at the top that fits under a person's arm — usually plural