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  1. #1
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Hiya,

    Here is a borderline case for the pundits among the native speakers. Let´s suppose we have just visited the graduation ceremony of a university. Graduates from different faculties / departments unknown to each other meet on the campus enquiring about their respective subjects. Having finished studies successfully and graduated not so long ago, holding their certificates right in their hands, they could ask one another:

    "What (subject) have you studied?" (present perfect)

    Let´s suppose one more time that after some 30 years they meet again at a reunion of former students on the same campus. Of course, not realizing or remembering each other any more they want to enquire about their former subjects once more. They could ask:

    "What did you study 30 years ago / when you were a student here?" (past simple)

    Because of the time reference to the past the past simple is compulsory in this case, and for the same reason the present perfect is ruled out. But what about the same question without time reference? Well, everybody knows that their studies are long ago, thus implicitly referring to the past. Could they yet ask each other this way:

    "What (subject) have you studied?" (present perfect),

    without any time reference to the past, just willing to learn about the very fact? The reference to a present state of affairs as necessary for the use of the present perfect would be given as it is still true and remains true that they are graduates of a certain faculty / department.

    Hucky

  2. #2
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Given that thirty years has elapsed, that you know they were once students there and have finished, I think it's stretching things to use the present perfect. I would simply ask What did you study? without any need for a time reference- the context of the meeting provides it all. Even outside the context of a reunion like that, I would still use the past tense if asking an older person about their studies.

    Also, your first example with the recent graduates and their certificates would also be past tense to me.

  3. #3
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Best thanks to you, Tdol!
    I see your point. Yet, to be on the safe side, may I come back to it? In other words, in your capacity as a fresh graduate, having finished studies just recently, you would use the past simple. Thus, you regard your studies as a past event. But what about this case: A student says:
    I have just done my homework. (Here it is.)
    The doing itself is also finished and, strictly speaking, belongs to the past. But why can you use the present perfect here?
    And there is something else that puzzles me. If I dare repeat a former example and a new one from the same author:
    1) “Shakespeare has described the satisfaction of a tyrannous lust of something …” (bold italics added)
    2) "I have said that it is not primarily ..." (referring to a thought expressed on a previous page / bold italics added)

    Well, in either case the actions obviously belong to the past, implying no topical, current link with the present. I really wonder why the author used the present perfect here. Any idea?

    Hucky

  4. #4
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    5jj is offline VIP Member
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Quote Originally Posted by Hucky View Post
    A student says: I have just done my homework. (Here it is.)
    The doing itself is also finished and, strictly speaking, belongs to the past. But why can you use the present perfect here?
    The speaker has chosen to view the situation from the perspective of the present - the homework is in a finished state.

    And there is something else that puzzles me. If I dare repeat a former example and a new one from the same author:
    1) “Shakespeare has described the satisfaction of a tyrannous lust of something …” (bold italics added)
    The speaker has chosen to chosen to see Shakespeare as still living (through the continuing popularity/influence of his works).

    2) "I have said that it is not primarily ..." (referring to a thought expressed on a previous page / bold italics added)The speaker has chosen to imply that the words, spoken or written in the past, are still valid now.
    The speaker can (often subconsciously) express his/her view of the situation by selecting an appropriate tense/aspect. Grammar and course books often seem to state, or at least imply, that only one form is appropriate in each case. One form may well be more likely, but there is often a choice.

  5. #5
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Dear fivejedjon,
    I reckon that´s exactly the dilemma: grammar books have to give rules, but reality in general (and the linguistic reality in particular) cannot always be covered by the rules - which does not make the rules worthless since by definition there is always an exception to the rule. I have long noticed that the reality of English (as of any other language) is much more complex than the attempts made by grammarians to describe it. As I know the rules I keep asking native speakers about the phenomena in case the rules do not correspond with a reliable source as a renowned author (about the kind of stuff hardly be found in any grammar book).

    Coming quickly back to your remarks as to the aspects of an action, wouldn´t that apply to the first and third example sentences given in my original message? So why not asking by means of the present perfect, even if it is less probable or common? What if I wanted to emphasize the present effects of the past actions here? Would it sound unnatural to the ears of a native speaker?

    Hucky

  6. #6
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Quote Originally Posted by Hucky View Post

    Coming quickly back to your remarks as to the aspects of an action, wouldn´t that apply to the first and third example sentences given in my original message? So why not asking by means of the present perfect, even if it is less probable or common? What if I wanted to emphasize the present effects of the past actions here? Would it sound unnatural to the ears of a native speaker?
    Pretty well anything is possible, though the use of the present perfect in your situations is unlikely.

    I was at a 40-year reunion a couple of years ago. If anybody had asked me, "What have you studied?" it would have sounded very strange. Even at the graduation ceremony forty years earlier, the question would not have sounded natural. Graduation ceremonies are held after the course of studies has ended. The studies are past.

  7. #7
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    When you hand your homework in, you have completed your part, but it still has to be graded and handed back for you to look at and see how you did, so in that sense, it's different from graduating and getting your certificate, at which stage, your course is over in every sense.

  8. #8
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Dear fivejedjon and Tdol,

    It keeps dawning upon me! Your replies are the stuff not to be found in any grammar book - what makes them so valuable! All you can do as a learner (in a foreign language you never stop being one) is to internalize the rules and to try to apply them to the corresponding situations. Yet, as you will never gain an immediate access to the language as a non-native speaker you can never foretell the way it sounds to a native speaker. It is hard - if not impossible - to establish rules for what sounds natural and why it does and what does not and why not.

    With best thanks and greetings

    Hucky

  9. #9
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Rules are convenient tools, but they need constant refining.

  10. #10
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    Re: Is the present still "perfect" even when people have grown old?

    Quote Originally Posted by Tdol View Post
    Rules are convenient tools, but they need constant refining.
    And what finer refiners could you find than UE members?

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