Saturday, September 11, 2010

the present perfect

This post title has been hanging around in my drafts since August 2006, when the friend who's been known on this blog as Foundational Friend mentioned some AmE bugbears as potential fodder for the blog.  The offending AmE sentence was:
Didn't you do that yet?
 And she said that in BrE it would have to be
Haven't you done that yet?

There was an echo of this when a native German speaker read a draft copy of a chapter of my new textbook, where my example (illustrating how we understand eat in some contexts to mean 'eat a meal') was:
Did you eat yet?
Now this sentence was basic to my linguistic education, as it was often used by one of my (AmE) professors/(BrE) tutors to illustrate palatali{s/z}ation (d+y becomes 'j' sound) and the extent to which a phrase can be phonetically reduced and still understood:  Jeet yet?  

But my German correspondent informed me quite insistently that my question was ungrammatical in English and should be Have you eaten yet?  I said something along the lines of "Who's the native speaker here?". But, dear reader, I changed the example, lest it put anyone else off.

A blog post on this subject by Jan Freeman spurred me to promise in public (well, on Twitter) that the present perfect would be the subject of my next post--which may help explain why I've been so long between posts.  This one (had) put me off for four years already, after all. It seemed like a lot of work.  Uh-oh, I feel a semantics/grammar lesson coming on...

So, the present perfect.  Present.  Perfect.  We use it to talk about things that (have) happened in the past, but it is itself in the present tense.  It's a past tense you say?  Look again!
I have eaten.
It's the first verb in a string of verbs that carries the tense, and this one, have, is present.  It's not had, it's have.  Of course, we can put had there, and then it would indeed be a past tense.  A past perfect, to be precise: I had eaten.

The perfect is considered to be a combination of tense and aspect.  Tense is grammatical marking of when something happened, aspect is grammatical marking of how that happening relates to time.  The perfect tells us that something is finished, but it does so from the viewpoint of a later time.  One way to visuali{s/z}e this is with a timeline.  Let's start with the past perfect (because it's the easiest one to draw a timeline for):
I had eaten by the time Don arrived:    2:00 Eating  ☚   3:00 Arriving  ☚  4:00 Speaking
In this example, 'I' am speaking at 4:00 about the state I was in at 3:00.  That state relates to an event that happened at 2:00.  In other words, I'm looking back to a time (Don's arrival at 3:00) at which eating was already in my past.

So, the perfect looks back on its event (eating, in this case) from a later vantage point (Don's arrival).  When we use the present tense, the speaking time is the same as the time that we're referring to.  So, in this case, we relate a past event to a present moment.
I have already eaten:    2:00 Eating   ☚  3:00 'already=now' Speaking
Of course, we can also do this with the future, in which case we are looking forward to a time when we'll be looking back at a time when we (from the 'now' perspective) will do something.  (And those are little fingers pointing, in case you can't tell.)
 I will have already eaten when Don arrives:
    2:00 Speaking  ☛☛☛☛☛☛ ☛4:00 Arriving  
                              3:00 Eating  ☚  4:00 Arriving
And you can put it into the progressive (I have been eating) and the passive (I have been fed) and most of the other ways in which you can play around with the form of a verb and the verb string.

So here's the story:  The adverbs already, just, and yet are taken as signals of that 'looking back from now' aspect, and in BrE they have to 'agree', so to speak, with the present perfect.  AmE has stopped caring so much about this 'agreement', which is, after all, a sort of redundant grammatical marking.  So, in AmE, you can by all means say I have eaten lunch already or I have already eaten lunch and it might sound a bit more formal, but you can also say I already ate lunch or I ate lunch already.  (If you'd like to think/comment about adverb placement, come back here.)  In general, though perhaps more in BrE than in AmE, the present perfect is used to signal recency, because it signals relevance to 'now'.  So, in either dialect, on the 10th of September 1976, one could have said Chairman Mao has died, but on 10 September 2010, we need to say Chairman Mao died (on the 9th of September in 1976).

The "death" of the present perfect in AmE has been exaggerated.  The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) reports that the BrE:AmE ratio of present perfect was 4:3 in their corpus study.  In British or American English? John Algeo reports that the perfect forms of have (have had, has had, had had) occur 1.7 times more often in BrE than in AmE.  These re not huge differences, but there's definitely a difference.  And it's been around for a while.  The Jeet yet? example mentioned above was perfectly unremarkable in my 1980s linguistics education.

Virginia Gathercole (1986) looked at Scottish and American adults' use of present perfect in speaking with young children and the acquisition of the present perfect by the children. She concluded that "Scottish adults use the present perfect construction in their speech to children much more frequently than American adults do" and "Scottish children use the present perfect construction in their speech long before their American counterparts."  Parents, of course, inevitably simplify their speech for their children.  In AmE, there's the option to simplify the past tense form to the preterit(e)* (simple past tense: ate, walked, threw) rather than complicating the syntax with the perfect (has eaten, has walked, has thrown), and parents take it.  In BrE (in this case Scottish English), that simplification option doesn't exist, and so the children are faced with the form earlier and rise to its challenge.

The conclusion I'd like to leave you with is this:  There is nothing unAmerican about the present perfect.  We can and do use it in the ways that the British do.  We just aren't restricted to it.  There is something unBritish about using the preterit(e)  with certain temporal adverbs in particular and perhaps also more generally to refer to recent-and-still-relevant events.  The difference between Did you eat yet? and Have you eaten already? is, in AmE, mostly a difference of formality, possibly also of emphasis.  However, if the two forms continue to co-exist, they might very well develop into semantically contrastive forms that signal somewhat different things.

*Preferred spelling in both dialects includes the 'e' on the end, but AmE also allows dropping of the 'e', i line with the pronunciation.  See comments (this is a postscript).