The present perfect can be a hard tense to understand and a beautiful tense to explain.
The problem for students is that it looks like and feels like the past. But it isn’t. The clue is in the title: The present perfect. It’s all about the present!
The present perfect tense isn’t about what you did yesterday, or what you did when you were a child or that time you forgot your key or any of that. It’s all about now. More precisely, it relates past actions to the present.
Some readers may not be sure what I mean by the ‘present perfect’. I have done my homework is an example. The simple past tense is I did my homework. So what’s the difference? This is the sixty-five thousand dollar question.
First, let’s think about the past.
When I think back through my past life I think about all the things I did, the things I enjoyed and tasted and felt and saw and experienced and messed up. And as I think about my past there is not one appearance of the word ‘have’. When I think about yesterday or last year, for example, I don’t think I have done, I think I did.
‘Have’ is all about now, in every sense of the word.
So back to the point. I saw the film and I’ve seen the film. What’s the difference?
When we say I saw the film, we have a particular past time in our minds, even if we don’t say it. We are thinking about the action AND the time in which it occurred. For example, if I say I met the president, not only do I think about myself and the president shaking hands but I also think about the particular time in which it happened. I’m thinking last week or three years ago or that summer I broke my arm. The past tense connects a past action with the past time in which it happened.
When I say I’ve seen the film I am not thinking about when I saw it. It’s just not important. It could be yesterday or a hundred years ago, it doesn’t matter. What is important is the action, and it is important for NOW. Where the simple past, I saw the film connects the action and the time in which I did it, the present perfect tense (the clue is in the title!) connects the past action with now.
So why do we want to connect past actions with now?
The answer is, for many reasons. For example, I want to explain to my friend that I don’t want any food now. I say No thanks, I’ve eaten. My eating in the past explains why I am not hungry now. I want to tell someone that I know about a place so I say I’ve been there. If I want to show how important I am now, I can say I’ve met presidents and kings. The I have done something is using my arsenal of past actions to have an effect on the present. I want to explain that I can’t pay for my drink so I say I’ve forgotten my wallet. I’ve finished my work tells my boss that’s it’s okay for me to leave now. I’ve cut myself says that I need a plaster and I’ve never done that could mean I’m interested.
Using the present perfect is like reaching back into the past and pulling a past action back into now and then using it to comment on the present in some way:
I’ve seen the film…I don’t want to see it, I know all about it, I can talk about it – are all possibilities.
You can say that we are the sum of all our past actions. Everything we do builds us and develops us for better or for worse. Sometimes, to show how we feel now, or what we know now, or what we want now, we use one of these past actions to demonstrate. We use the present perfect tense.
Imagine a man standing in an empty space. He stands there looking straight at you. Behind him, just a millimeter to his left stands himself again. Like a shadow. Again, a little further to the left, there is another image of the same man and this continues back and back, smaller and smaller. Each image of the man is a little younger than the previous going back. As you move further down the line into the distance the man becomes younger, then a teenager and then a child and then a toddler until the furthest speck is him when he was born.
If I point to any one of these ‘men’ I can say that they did particular actions. Some of them did their homework and when they got older they went to college or they travelled around the world. They had girlfriends and got into fights. They saw movies and slept on floors or in beds. The man we see now, he has a past, a history snaking behind him like a tail leading back to his first moment, his birth.
If the present man wants to talk about his past experiences, he will use the past. ‘In 1987 I had a beautiful girlfriend and we went to Bolivia and climbed the highest mountain.’ But here, he is simply talking about a particular past time, in this case, 1987. But sometimes in life we do not talk about the past time. Rather we use a past action to explain something about the present. We carry all those past actions in our heads and hearts, and suddenly we pull them out and say ‘this is me!’ ‘This is who I am’. ‘I’ve been to Bolivia!’, ‘I’ve had a beautiful girlfriend’, ‘I’ve climbed mountains!’
Reaching back into the past
It’s like we reach back into the past and pull a past action back into the present and use to comment on the present in some way:
I’ve seen the film
The present perfect tense uses the past to give the listener a message for now. I’ve seen the film may mean I don’t want to see it now or perhaps now I want to talk about it. The basic message is now, I know about this film.
The present perfect illustrates present knowledge by using the past as example.
Accuracy is obviously an important part of speaking a language. A lot of English teachers would say that not making mistakes is important but at the same time students shouldn’t worry too much about it as long as their mistakes don’t affect understanding. Students though don’t really accept this idea (they want to speak correctly!) and I think rightly so.
People care about the impression they make when communicating
After all, people worry about the impressions they make. Whether it’s a good impression in a first meeting or the impression you give people generally, we have an image of ourselves which we want to portray. And this image is generally positive. We want to be seen as educated, dynamic and/or successful people, not as someone who makes mistakes. The result of this in the English classroom students often say ‘please correct me’ to the teacher.
For the teacher there is a little bit of a dilemma here. On one hand they want to correct the learner to promote accuracy in the language. On the other hand they don’t want to undermine the learner’s confidence and correct too much. Correct to a point and let the other stuff go. Tomorrow is another day.
So as teachers, we don’t want to correct students every time we hear a mistake. But there are times we most certainly do correct. And one of those times is when we hear the habitual mistake. These are mistakes which are engrained into learners (often) of particular nationalities. They are mistakes which the same (nationality) learners make again and again.
Here are a few examples of common mistakes:
The last week I went to Cork. This is a common habit with the words next and last. Basically, there is no the when next or last refers to now. Last week I went to Cork is correct.
One means not two…
I want one coffee please. Here, the problem is one. In English, one means ‘not two’. What that means is that you only say ‘one’ when the listener is expecting you to say ‘two’ (or ‘three’ etc). Imagine you have been in a bar with your friend for a couple of hours ordering and drinking beer. Every time you order another round you ask for ‘two beers’. Your friend now however, doesn’t want another beer. You decide to have one more for the road. You call the barman over. What does he expect you to say? Two beers! Of course, as this is what you have been ordering all night. But you ask for ‘one beer’. One means not two, and in this case it’s correct. Usually you ask for a beer. Therefore the correct version of the sentence above is I want a beer please.
He’s 19 years. Here, you have an option. You can either say he’s 19 years old, or just simply, he’s 19.
Thanks for all. This is not correct. It should be ‘thanks for everything’. The word all is a modifier used before nouns to mean everything. But it is not a noun itself. All the money, all the world, all Dublin…is correct. Without the noun, you need to say everyone or everything etc.
Active voice or passive voice?
I cut my hair. Although this is possible it probably isn’t correct. Here you should use the passive form to have/get something done. The idea is that there are things we don’t do ourselves but rather we pay someone to do them for us. Perhaps we don’t do it because we are lazy (I get my grass cut every week) or we don’t have time (I have the dog walked in the evening) or we don’t have the necessary skill to do it (I’m getting my car serviced tomorrow.
I want that he comes to the party. When you want a person to do something the structure is want+person+to+verb…I want him to pay me. She wants me to help her. Therefore, the correct version of the sentence above is I want him to come to the party.
Next week I will come back to Italy. Here, the problem is come. Basically you always come here and go there (except on the phone!). Come is to where you are and go is to all other places. When in Ireland, Italy is there, and so the sentence should read next week I’m going back to Italy. I have also changed the tense to the present continuous as it is a planned arrangement (I have the ticket).
So what mistakes should teachers correct?
The great thing about correcting the habitual mistake is that it opens doors which have some very interesting language items to explore on the other side. Open the door, take some steps (how many according to the level you are teaching) and then go back and move on. This makes for an interesting and dynamic class.
Another error to correct is when the learner makes a mistake using the target language being dealt with in the class. If the class has a grammar theme, for example future forms, the teacher should be dealing with issues which arise around this area of grammar. Again, level plays a key role in what to correct and how far to go with it.
With these errors in mind, how should we as teachers go about correcting them?
There are of course a variety of ways. Some teachers can correct as they hear them and some will gather them for a language focus session at the end of the class. Some teachers will advocate peer correction and some will create a task around them for the next session. All ways are valid. The important thing is that the teacher promotes understanding in the learner. They must present the language in context and show the learner why one form is used and another is not. The key then is once the learner has understanding the teacher then facilitates the learner to use the target language as much as possible through tasks, eliciting or homework. The key to language learning is production on the learner’s part.
In my experience of observing teachers, I have found that the most successful ones are the teachers who ‘sit’ on the target language. How long you sit and how deep you dig depends on the learner’s level. In the classroom, the teacher is the filter. Some things pass and others are stopped and dealt with. Through the teacher, the learner can develop their communication skills to the point where they are making language choices which are appropriate to the situation within which they are communicating.
After all, this is what the learners want isn’t it?
By John Ryan
Natural English in Englishour
First of all, what is idiomatic English and how does it differ from ‘normal’ English?
Idiomatic language is language which sounds completely natural and with a particular style, often metaphorical. Also, idiomatic language often doesn’t translate directly from other languages. For this reason, learners of English often find idiomatic language more difficult as it doesn’t directly relate to their own language.
For example, idiomatically you might say he kept me in the dark whereas normally it is he didn’t tell me. Normally you might say I said something embarrassingly stupid whereas idiomatically it is I put my foot in it.
Native speakers of English love using idiomatic English because it’s shorter and the images are often more powerful. For example, I have enough money to survive financially becomes I’m getting by.
In Englishour, the secrets of idiomatic language are revealed making it easy for the learner to speak like a native speaker.
Why not test yourself now and see how much idiomatic English you already know? In the two columns below, try to match the phrases with their idiomatic counterparts:
Normal speak — Idiomatic speak – Match the formal and idiomatic:
He has a surprising skill/past— He let the cat out of the bag
He got really angry— He has a lot on his plate
He is extremely lazy— He heard it straight from the horse’s mouth
He (accidentally) told the secret— He hit the roof
He is really busy— He’s a dark horse
He got it from source— He is a couch potato
Idiomatic English is fun and is just one of the elements of language focused on in Englishour.
In Englishour, students can expect to be taught all of the skills, speaking, writing, reading and listening in both a formal and informal context.
Put simply, when searching for an English course in Dublin, Englishour is head and shoulders above the rest! 🙂
Here are some interesting and surprising facts about Dublin city.
Dublin has more than 750 pubs!
Dublin is known throughout the world for its unrivalled pubs and nightlife, so it’s not really a surprise that the city has over 750 pubs. The Brazen Head (just near the Guiness brewery) is one of the oldest pubs in the world, first opening in 1168! The real surprise, however, is that Dublin has the fewest pubs per person than any other capital city in Europe!
Dublin means ‘Black Pool’
Dublin comes from the Gaelic phrase ‘Dubh Linn’, which can be translated to ‘Black Pool’. The name’s thought to originate from the dark, large lake situated between the River Liffey and the River Poddle. The lake’s long disappeared, replaced by Dublin Castle’s Dubh Linn gardens.
If you really want to impress family and friends, though, you could use the official Irish name for Dublin, Baile Átha Cliath, which is translated as ‘Town of the Hurdled Ford’.
St. Valentine is buried in Dublin
If you think Paris is the capital of love, you’re in for a surprise! The remains of St Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, are kept at the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church and you can visit his shrine there, too.
The O’Connell Bridge is wider than long
The O’Connell Bridge’s unique dimensions make it famous throughout Europe, being wider than it is long at an amazing 49metres! Up until 1863, Dublin only had a weak rope bridge, so the city’s come a long, long way.
Dublin is one of UNESCO’s cities of literature
Dublin has a brilliant reputation for literary excellence, being home to numerous famous authors, including Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.With multiple libraries, publishing companies and literary institutions, bookworms are in heaven here!
More UNESCO cities of literature include: Norwich, England; Reykjavik, Iceland; Edinburgh, Scotland; Melbourne, Australia and Iowa City, USA. See http://www.cityofliterature.com/cities-of-literature/cities-of-literature/dublin/ for details.
You’ll never run out of Guinness
Dublin’s most famous brewery is not only Dublin’s oldest business and a tourist attraction you should definitely visit, but you can rest assured there’ll be plenty of time to visit it. The Guinness Brewery is on a leasehold of 9,000 years, which expires in the year 10,759!
Dublin’s twin cities
Whilst you may not think twinned cities provide any benefits, it helps cities maintain good commercial and financial links. Dublin is twinned with a number of cities, including Liverpool, England; Barcelona, Spain and San Jose, California.
Dublin boasts Europe’s largest city park
If you’re looking for the perfect outdoor space to practice your English skills, you’ll be spoilt for choice. With over 2,000 hectares of parkland and miles of cycling and walking paths, the Phoenix Park is the largest in Europe. Dublin Zoo is also based here, which is second in size only to New York’s Central Park.