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  1. #1
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    Default Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    In BE simple past normally requires a defined finished time reference,
    that is either explicitly stated or can at least be derived from the given context.
    I guess that without a sufficient time reference in BE you'll probably ask for clarification.
    The AE usage of simple past seems to be less restricted.
    I've experienced many cases where the time reference was not mentioned and the context did not say much about it either,
    e.g. "I can't find my wallet. Did you see it?", or on the phone: "Did you get my e-mail?".
    Though I was always tempted to ask for clarification ("When?") more often than not I just went ahead
    and took it to mean "recently" or "since we last met, spoke or whatever". How do AE speakers read these sentences?
    Is this usage of simple past [as opposed to present perfect] generally accepted in AE or does it sound uneducated?
    Would you [as AE speakers] rather say "I can't find my wallet. Have you seen it?", or "Have you gotten my e-mail?"
    in these examples. Would there be any difference in meaning?

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    Quote Originally Posted by Jens
    In BE simple past normally requires a defined finished time reference,
    that is either explicitly stated or can at least be derived from the given context.
    I guess that without a sufficient time reference in BE you'll probably ask for clarification.
    The AE usage of simple past seems to be less restricted.
    I've experienced many cases where the time reference was not mentioned and the context did not say much about it either,
    e.g. "I can't find my wallet. Did you see it?", or on the phone: "Did you get my e-mail?".
    Though I was always tempted to ask for clarification ("When?") more often than not I just went ahead
    and took it to mean "recently" or "since we last met, spoke or whatever". How do AE speakers read these sentences?
    Is this usage of simple past [as opposed to present perfect] generally accepted in AE or does it sound uneducated?
    Would you [as AE speakers] rather say "I can't find my wallet. Have you seen it?", or "Have you gotten my e-mail?"
    in these examples. Would there be any difference in meaning?
    I would say: Did you see it?
    and did you get my e-mail.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    Thanks, that sort of proves my point.
    Could you say a few more words as to why you'd choose simple past here and not present perfect.
    It has often been stated that AE prefers simple past over present perfect,
    but what according to what rules do AE speakers choose either tense?
    It's pretty hard for non-native speakers (having been taught BE in school) to figure this out,
    especially when it's not the basic uses cases like "duration or repetitions up to the present"
    or "experiences" we're talking about.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    Sorry, I didn't elaborate on that. I know what you saying but honestly I really don't know the answer. I guess the only sure indication of a Present Perfect Tense would be some adverbial phrases like already, yet, ever, etc. They are supposed to make the connection with the present moment but even at that, I catch myself using Simple Past. I am so used to it, it really doesn't bother me when I hear others use it as well. I am thinking while I am writing this why should it be so important to make the connection with the present time. Why don't you guys feel more at ease with Simple Past?

    OK. look at the sentence here:

    BrE I have already had my lunch.
    AmE I had my lunch already.

    In both cases you ate your lunch, you are done, finished deal. I feel there is no reason to make the connection with the present moment. I'd stick with Simple Past.

    Now about your questions:

    "I can't find my wallet. Did you see it?",

    Well, here I would go with Present Perfect: Have you seen my wallet?

    reason: the wallet is still missing and it's veryimportant to make the present connection - Present Perfect puts more urgency into the sentence.
    I don't think I would say : "did you see my wallet" because it would be like saying: did you see it at one time or another. What color was it? What shape was it? What matters to me is that it's missing and I need it now. I would use Present Perfect here.




    "Did you get my e-mail?".

    That sounds fine to me! I would never use have gotten my e-mail. It almost sounds weird. Not that I want to rock the boat here and tell others others they should say what I say.
    As I said before, I can't crawl into my head and say why I prefer one tense over the other. I just asked my husband about "have you seen my wallet?" and he said he would use either Present Perfect or S.Past. Go figure...

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    Thanks a lot.
    But where does that leave us poor non-native speakers
    with our lack of gut feeling for what sounds right?
    Any further advice [by anyone] is very much appreciated.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    No further advice from me, I am afraid. The only point I would like to make is that while teaching ESL, why not stick to the mainstream grammar alone. Trying to figure this out this and further complicate things for the students will only cause more problems than solve. I can guarantee you that. One thing is for sure, being mainstream you can't go wrong. You're teaching them Standrad English (whatever that means). Look at previous threads about "since two months ago". What I feel comfortable with, I wouldn't teach others, as it will only add to their confusion. ESL students have enough to worry about as it is.

  7. #7
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    Another example:

    A tries to speaks with B on the phone who isn't around and leaves a message and asks B to call back.
    A tells C that he's waiting for B to call back.
    Later on C wants an update on this:
    1. C: Did B call you back?
    2. C: Has B called you back?
    3. C: Did B call you back yet?
    4. C: Has B called you back yet?
    I guess the implied time reference in all these sentences is "at any time up to now",
    which "normally" (right, what is normal) calls for present perfect.
    But what about the simple past sentences?
    Would they be prefered in AE?
    Where is the difference in AE?
    Does any of these sentences sound unnatural?
    Specifically:
    Does 2. express more importance than 1.? Is 1. a more neutral way of asking?
    What does 3. add to the meaning of 1.?
    What does 4. add to the meaning of 2.?

  8. #8
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    Are you an ESL student Jens???

    I don't know how helpful and useful I can be to others by getting into something that mainstream grammars don't teach. Since you are not getting too much feedback (and I can sure understand why), I will give it another try. Given the examples, now I can have a closer look at what I am working with.

    Back to your question, I would go with #3: Did he call you back yet?

    If he phoned, it already happened, didn't it? Either he phoned or he didn't. Plain and simple. I don't feel the need to connect this with the present moment. What does connect his calling with the present is the little adverbial "yet" put at the end of the sentence. In that sense, I might be still wondering if there is a chance he might want to call. But even at that, I wouldn't have a problem using Simple Past without the adverbial. If I say: "Did he call you back?", I just want facts without the urgency element that "yet" would add. Basically, same thing. When it comes down to it, there is not a heck of a lot of difference between all of the examples you quoated.

    Does any of these sentences sound unnatural?

    No, not at all. I really think it's just a preference thing and what others say around us simply rubs off on all of us. I think this is the reason why we have those differences. If I were to move to England, I would probably start using Present Perfect more than I do now. However, I am sure there are cases where you can't interchange those tenses, so for all the students out there, Present Perfect Tense is still a very valid tense and going strong!
    Last edited by Marylin; 09-Jun-2005 at 02:41.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    Thanks a lot, Marylin,
    Yes, I am an ESL student, and yes, you're right,
    I've never found a grammar book that teaches this kind of stuff,
    and that's why I wanted to hear what you AE speakers have to say.
    I knew that you guys prefer simple past over present perfect very much,
    and I've always believed that you have a reason for that.
    I didn't get it completely yet (I guess that was AE again),
    but I'll settle for your answers for now.
    I just wanted learn more about the subtleties of AE,
    that no doubt has become the modern Standard English no matter
    what the grammar books writers say or are willing to accept.
    Thanks again for answers.

  10. #10
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    Default Re: Simple past without defined time reference in AE

    You are welcome, Jen. Sorry I couldn't come up with more reasons or huntches. Sometimes it's hard for me to put into words what I feel. It's a lot easier to explain things by the book.

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