English Teacher Article A handout on the Present Perfect tense

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Here's a handout I give to my students on how to use the Present Prefect tense.

Present Prefect

• You use the present perfect (not the past simple) when talking about general experiences.

I've never been to Kyoto.
Have you seen this film?


Be careful! There is a difference between the participles been and gone.

Peter has been to Tanzania. (He went to Tanzania and now he's back.)

Peter has gone to Tanzania. (He's in Tanzania now.)


• You use the present perfect (not the past simple) to talk about recent past events, often with just, already, and yet.

I've just seen Stefan.

We've already told him.

Haven't you finished your homework yet?


• You use the present perfect (not the past simple or the present simple) to talk about an action that began in the past but is still going on now.

I've lived in Japan for ages.
I've known Stefan since last week.


• You use for to say how long an action has been going on and since to say when the action started.

They've lived in P.N.G. for two years. He's had a cold since Monday.

Categories: Lesson Plans & Handouts

4 Comments

Good effort

Please note: My objective here is not to be nasty. Comments here; Objective at the end:

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* You use the present perfect (not the past simple) when talking about general experiences.

Patient: Doctor! Doctor! Every time I sneeze, I get an erection!

Doctor: What are you taking for it?

Patient: Black pepper...


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* Peter has been to Tanzania. (He went to Tanzania and now he's back.)

[conversation about Tanzania leads to...]
A: Hey, I hear Peter's been to Tanzania.
B: He has. He has. Have you?
A: No, I haven't. Say, where IS Peter thesedays? I haven't seen him in a while...
B: Um... Italy the last I heard. Working at some conversation school there for rich mobsters' wives...

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* You use the present perfect (not the past simple) to talk about recent past events

A: Excuse me... Is John here?
B: Yeah, he's... Oh! He WAS here... I saw him just a minute ago!

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* You use the present perfect (not the past simple or the present simple) to talk about an action that began in the past but is still going on now.

I live in Japan. I came here a couple of years ago.

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As I said at the outset, my intention here is not to be nasty to the author of this article. Rather, my purpose is to demonstrate that these tired old "rules of usage" for the Present Perfect are completely incorrect.

Well, more to the point, they are--as with most of the problems I find concerning grammar teaching--half-truths designed to supposedly HELP students by "keeping it simple" but which go on to cause more damage than the short-term band-aid solution they (apparently) provide--for the TEACHER mostly!

The Perfect Aspect is not difficult to understand. It only has ONE function in English (which is the subject of another series of articles and not a blog comment! :-) ).

Neither is it exceedingly difficult for learners of English if dealt with correctly. Now, is that the same as "easy"? No, of course not! This concept (i.e. perfect aspect) simply doesn't exist in many languages. And the ones in which it does often use it slightly differently, making mapping from L1 to L2 problematic. But it's not as stupendously difficult as everyone always makes it out to be.

The problem as far as I'm concerned is in the same old half-truths being rehashed again and again and again by each new generation of EFL teachers (who then "graduate" to being textbook writers) without them critically examining the tosh our textbooks are telling us.

So, although I'm not going out of my way to be horrible to the author of this article, I'm far less generous in my assessment than the first commenter.

Leslie

How is this a handout? This can be explained on the board.

I rarely respond to online forums, but felt compelled to respond to Leslie. I think Leslie has made some fundamental errors of assumption in his/her comments, and seems ignorant of the real objectives of grammar teaching in the modern classroom.

Leslie's comments certainly resonate with my own experience of learning grammar in school as a native speaker, but that was almost fifty years ago. Back then, grammar was incorrectly characterised as a kind of language rule book. True grammarians of the time knew better of course, but most pedagogical models were rote-based and the rule-book approach to grammar was well suited to this. Enlightened students of grammar recognise that it is a description of language use, not a book of rules.

The only languages with fixed rules for grammar and use are dead languages, Latin being one example. Living languages constantly change, and the changes include grammar. Witness for example, the current widespread disappearance of the past participle from American English, or the blurring distinction between 'that' and 'which' in all forms of English. If grammar were a rule book, changes like these would be impossible, as would many aspects of creative writing. The grammar pedants of the past were like Knute trying to hold back the tides of change.

The teaching pedants of the early C20th modelled their 'rules' on the grammar norms of Victorian society. They taught 'The Queen's English'. By the 1970s, the Queen's English had become overwhelmed by changes in common usage, and the teaching of grammar mired in technicalities that were not relevent to many learners. Rote-learning was seen as no longer serving the needs of students learning the basics of something that was much too complex, intricate, and changeable to be contained by a few rules.

Grammar pedantry was out. What followed for some time was a kind of confused and confusing free for all led by grammar anti-elitists who attempted to impart an understanding of the many ways language is used without reference to clear models. Herein lies one of the fundamentals that Leslie has overlooked. Grammar is a description of common usage, and as such it is useful in different ways for both native speakers and ESL students.

The last thing my ESL students want from me is an indiscriminate validation of their every attempt at using the English language. Yet if I were to apply the standards of the anti-elitist, this is what I would be led to do most of the time because the core issue for the anti-elite relativist is to ask, 'Has the meaning been understood?'. If the answer is 'Yes', then relativism insists that the pathway to meaning is irrelevent. While the sentiment here is commendable and appropriate to any social context, the practical application in education can be disastrous. My students want to understand and use nuances of meaning that Leslie and I would take for granted, and for that they need to see basic usage modeled.

The modelling of sentences does not preclude the exception. Indeed there is no aspect of grammar or language immune to exception, and clever and original manipulations of the language incorporating the exception have been applauded since Shakespeare's time. Leslie made specific criticism of each of Stefan's four models of common usage for present perfect based on the assertion that these models had exceptions and therefore were invalid.

Firstly, I would like to point out to Leslie that she/he has overlooked the real purpose of the models and the handout. Leslie's assumption is that teachers today use such models to inculcate a rigid stereotype of language use, and this is incorrect. Any astute teacher will point out to students that the norms and forms of English spelling and grammar are riddled with exceptions. Nevertheless, students want and need to know the basic forms.

Secondly though, I would take issue with Leslie's suggestion that his/her examples are indeed exceptions. I outline my argument as follows:
- In regard to Leslie's first example, I think the error Leslie makes is to assume that a stated use for a given tense precludes the same or similar use for other tenses. It does not, and present simple is also used to talk about the general present. This does not alter the validity of Stefan's example of basic common use for present perfect.
- In example two, Leslie provides an outcome to a fanciful conversation which is purportedly an exception because it is a use not covered by Stefan's example. If you look closely though, you will see that the meaning of having gone to a place and then left is preserved in Leslie's example, and therefore it is not an exception. We could go on endlessly constructing examples and variations similar to Leslie's, but they would be equally similar to Stefan's because the use of the tense is the same.
-Hmmm. I have to admit that I was perplexed by Leslie's example three. In the end though, I think it is the magic of context that makes it appear that Leslie has spotted a flaw in Stefan's logic. Leslie's context provides a scenario that straddles the past, the recent and the present. In an event where the recent past is so immediately present, either present perfect or past simple would represent common usage, and common practical usage is what students want to learn. If Leslie's example three really is an exception, then it is one probably best suited to the classroom discussion, and Stefan's examples stand as a simple guide to common usage. A handout should never try to carry so much information or examples of possible exceptions that it becomes confusing for students.
-In example four, Leslie posits that she/he uses present simple where Stefan's guide suggests present perfect must be used and not present/past simple. Notice though that Leslie uses two sentences to convey the meaning, incorporting two verbs, whereas the single sentence, 'I have lived in Japan for two years' conveys the meaning in a single sentence and in a more sophisticated language form than Leslie's cumbersome and unnatural construct.

This last example neatly illustrates a point that Leslie and other critics have overlooked. They have failed to ask, or failed to adequately answer, 'What is the purpose of a handout or any given example?'. Any student who is studying present perfect will already be familiar with past and present simple and will be able to construct meaningful thoughts in various combinations of simple and compound sentences using only these. To the extent they can, they will have learned these basic uses through models that are clear and simple. More to the point though, they will want more, and what they want are simple natural models of common English language use. When it comes to learning tenses, handouts that use a single sentence to illustrate use are stock in trade to the English teacher, though only ever as an adjunct to a general teaching method cogniscent of exceptions and alternatives.

While not wishing to be nasty and without reflecting on Leslie in any way, shape or form, may I say that a new form of pedantry has replaced the old. Critics abound for the teaching of grammar, but their criticism is usually founded in a misguided understanding of the purpose of grammar teaching in various contexts, or a reactionary lamentation of teaching in general.

To Stefan I say well done. I like your handout and will use it in my class tomorrow.




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