Present, but not perfect

Thomas Leverett, Sept. 2008

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When I taught lower-level grammar classes I often felt that the present perfect tense put dinner on my table, that, in putting it out to the class I was setting myself up as a kind of wizard, explaining the unexplainable, doing magic to the uncomprehending. Teaching in the higher levels has made me realize that it's actually a complicated picture, and that the true story of acquisition, of even a simple grammatical form, can be a very complex story.

I would start out by explaining the three major ways present perfect is used, as in for example the following sentences: 1. I have already eaten 2. I have lived in this town for fourteen years. 3. I have gone to St. Louis many times. The first sets up the explanation of why present perfect is different from the simple past (I ate breakfast this morning). Simple past stresses the action happening in clear time; present perfect stresses the finished nature of the action, compared to now. But, my students say, both were in the past. True, I counter, but there's a basic difference between focus on action's happening in time, and focus on it's being finished, compared to now. The third is similar to the first, in its focus on finished-ness, but the second shows a different kind of meaning, a continuing action, up to now (in this case from 1994 right up to the present but not necessarily continuing through the present) - and, I'd like to think (correct me if I'm wrong) we have chosen a finished tense in order to measure the length of the time, even though in fact the action may not be finished, in a larger sense. In other words, even though I still live in this town, I use the finished tense so that I can measure the fourteen years successfully.

My students look at me with raised eyebrows and we continue on to the exercises, which have them choosing tense for various verbs, given time experessions like "two days ago" (past) and "since 1996" (present perfect). Thus the book authors feel that they have laid out the basic verbs, as this is a basic distinction in our language that they need to know about very early.

But is it? The Russian students have no problem with this finished/unfinished distinction, since their whole verb system is similar. But almost everyone else has trouble with it, not so much understanding it, but simply learning how to choose between the perfects and simple past, in the course of ordinary conversation. What in fact happens is that, having passed the quizzes and mastering putting the right tense in the right blank, they go on to ignore the present perfect for months, an extended period of learning. They use the simple past for virtually everything, and like many Americans, they get away with it; in fact, people here barely flinch when you say I already ate or I went to St. Louis many times. This goes on for quite a while.

An interesting thing happens when they avoid the present perfect for sentences like #2: they say, I live here up to now or I live here until now and other odd constructions that I eventually begin to recognize as continuous action, up to the present, not necessarily going through the present to the future. Where is the present perfect? Not using it yet. Why not? Good question.

It's not that hard to make, though in a practical sense in sentences like He's eaten all the spaghetti "has" sounds like "is" and flies by so quickly that they learn to just figure out who did it and stop worrying about it. They understand it ok when they see it or hear it, but they don't seem to pick up the necessity of distinguishing finished vs. simple past, and, if their audience objects to their disfluency, perhaps they are slow to correct them, or, they simply get away with not learning it. It has occurred to me that things might be different in different environments, particularly in the UK, where I suspect you'd be straightened out much sooner for saying I already ate; or, maybe if they had to keep explaining how long they'd been here or how long they had done or been doing this or that. I suspect that the keys to successfully finishing the process of acquisition of a grammatical structure includes the following: knowing the most appropriate form; knowing that it works better for saying what one wants to say; having repeated opportunity to either do the fluent thing or do what one has been doing, up to the moment; knowing one will have many more similar opportunities; and, finally, choosing to make one's life more fluent by incorporating the mental reorganization necessary to make this tense at the appropriate times; in other words, setting up the mental assembly line required to put have in the right form and attach a participle to it. I believe that it is possible to look at these processes and see that, in the case of many learners, some key requirements are missing, and thus they will not acquire this structure as quickly as others.

If present perfect is a basic element of the language, then it would follow that their acquisition of it would come quickly, and would be necessary for them to acquire other structures. The latter could be true even if it's not coming quickly; I'm not saying that my students have jumped over it, necessarily. All I'm saying is that there is incongruity in what I'm seeing. We lay it out for them, early, and present it as essential, test it, ensure they know what it looks like and what forms to put in what blanks. But it's months later, sometimes never, that we actually see them spontaneously creating it as part of a fluent speaker/writer's repertoire. If it was so necessary, why didn't they just pick it up on the spot?

Of course, there are programs and situations where nobody is given the task of explaining a tense to any learners, ever; the alternate strategy is to inundate them with enough language so that they pick it up on their own, naturally, since, given the conditions above, they arrive at the point where they need it sooner. Does this work better? I can't say. On one level I'm sure they appreciate a clear explanation of what it is and why we use it; on another, I sense that it comes too early in the curriculum for them to really find it useful in their daily language production, which seems to develop on its own timeline, independent of any grammar curriculum. But just because the grammar curriculum mostly creates successful testing results, as opposed to fluent and effective language usage, doesn't mean that it's completely without value. Students continue to ask for clear explanations of what is going on and why. And some upper-level students, when I lay out sentences like #1-3, and say basically what I just said about their function, continue to say, thank you so much, I've seen those for a long time, and nobody ever told me what they were all about. This is not quite the same as saying, thank you, I'll use this tense at the next appropriate opportunity, but it is, perhaps, the preliminary step, the sign that an important process is now at least on its way.



Leverett, T. (2008, Feb.) Communicative theory rocks the late 20th century. Google Docs.         Available:                               

(working paper: part of a larger, unfinished work)