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Simple Past versus Present Perfect (a rant and your opinion)

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Joined: 11 Sep 2006
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Location: New Orleans

PostPosted: Tue Sep 22, 2009 4:50 am    Post subject: Simple Past versus Present Perfect (a rant and your opinion) Reply with quote

I was reading this article on earlier and the following paragraph struck me as an interesting example of American over-usage of the unperfected simple aspect when referring to past happenings:

This new campaign, according to brand manager Justin Parnell, is an effort to reintroduce Miracle Whip to the 18-34 year-old demographic. "Our research showed that younger consumers had grown up with Miracle Whip, but that it had fallen off their radar," says Parnell. "Our buyers were tending to skew older. This is an opportunity to reinvent the brand."

In all fairness to Americans, British speakers are equally bad in that they underuse this form preferring the perfected present tense of the simple aspect nearly universally for expressing the past. One of the most difficult challenges to learners of English is recognizing which combination of tense, aspect, and perfection to use in which situation. The rules are somewhat simple in some circumstances and quite perplexing in others. Making the challenge worse is the fact that most native speakers rarely use the ideal forms. This is not to say that the ways people speak are wrong or incorrect, rather that as a community of speakers (or even a diaspora many slightly different communities) we have at some point lost our focus on forms – our recognition of the expressive nature of our verbal constructions. We have instead blurred the lines between what should be a very logical system for expressing ideas.

As natives most speakers even if unable to explain their reasons, have little difficulty deciding between aspects with most activities falling in the realm of the progressive (continuous) and information being expressed with the simple. If there were a clear cut breakdown between the aspects (and yes, there are only two in English – “the perfect” is not an aspect) then merely informative utterances would be expressed via the simple aspect and activities would be discussed using the progressive. English is a very activity oriented language and thus the progressive occurs much more often than even in other languages with a progressive form such as Spanish. Things are not however clear cut in English, nor in any otherwise logical mathematical system into which that dastardly human factor is introduced. Native English speakers often use the simple aspect to express an idea that would best be handled by the progressive. The errors are less noticeable in idea as they are in observing the various grammatical accoutrements that accompany the verb. The names of the aspects actually allude to the limitations of their forms: the simple aspect is very simple in what it can and cannot express; the progressive is more flexible and allows discussion of things that progress (thus its name) and likewise the alternative name continuous alludes to the continuous nature of verbs with that form. This results in sentences like “I ate for two hours.” actually being well, illegal under the true rules of the simple aspect. The simple does not allow for expression of duration; that’s the job of the progressive (because its verbs progress over a period of time) meaning that the correct utterance should be “I was eating for two hours.”

Natives break the rules of their language. They do so in English just as they do in every language because most people just don’t sit and think about the grammatical legality of their usage while speaking. They could, and perhaps Samuel Johnson did. But, the rules of English have often been as much the problem as the solution, and you can actually blame some of that on Dr. Johnson and his cohorts. Many of the prescriptive rules of English were written in the 17th Century by the likes of Johnson and other early English grammarians and they were written down a good 200 years before the birth of modern linguistics. This means that the “rules” of English – that is (and this is why I used quotes) the prescribed rules of the language and the accepted guidance for teaching English – actually violate many basic linguistic rules. In fact, the primary violation that has been for some unfounded reason tolerated is that many rules of English grammar have exceptions. Some have as many exceptions as applications. Linguistics like any modern science follows the scientific method and within its scope there is one very universal tenet that English grammar violates – that rules don’t have exceptions. Clearly put, if a rule doesn’t work one hundred percent of the time, it’s wrong and needs to be rethought. This is the guidance we apply to linguistic surveys of newly discovered languages, yet for English we have not. From a language education standpoint it is very important that when rules don’t fully work we refrain from trying to force these untenable rules on students and instead find rules that are based on sound linguistic principles and apply those fully functioning guidelines to the learning process.

While some prescriptive rules of English grammar and usage are linguistically incorrect, others are simply unavailable in the teaching lexicon. These tend to be the natural rules of the language – those practices regulated by universal grammar that are naturally acquired by first language learners and so challenging to second language learners. The challenge in developing an common rule set for these aspects of the language is that it’s very difficult for native speakers to describe how to think about things that they don’t have to think about while doing.

For even the most experienced and research prone linguists and educators of English, certain areas of the language remain a conundrum. One of these is determining when and whether to use the perfected present tense of the simple aspect of the non-perfected past tense. In many instances determining the ideal usage is clear. In others it is not. The first problem in this is that most people and especially most English teachers do not themselves know what the purpose of the various tense, aspect, perfection, and modal combinations are.

It is first important to restate as above that English only has two aspects – simple and progressive. As those have been discussed we will deal with the simple from here on out. Each of the two aspects can be perfected. Perfected in terms of grammar simply means completed. That is, the perfect form of the verb allows for expression of the termination (or in the progressive suspension) of the verb – the point at which the verb itself is completed. Finally each aspect (and both perfected and nonperfected forms of each aspect) have three forms – two expressing tense (present and past) and one expressing mood (future is actually a mood rather than a tense in English). The description of verbal constructions should reflect the priority of its forms with aspect being most important, then whether that aspect is being perfected or not, and finally a temporal or modal reference to the verb. Thus what we generally refer to as the past simple (or simple past) is actually the simple aspect in the past while what is commonly referred to as the present perfect is actually the perfected simple aspect in the present. The latter moniker actually much more clearly describes the function of that verb combination as this form is used to discuss verbs that are completed as of the time of utterance (the present) while the perfected simple in the past (aka past perfect) is used for verbs that are completed as of a specific time in the past (yet another of those unwritten rules: specific time phrases cannot be used with perfected forms in the present).

Still beyond all of this, when to use the (and I’ll use the traditional names here) simple past versus the present perfect is confusing for most speakers and teachers. There are countless pages on the internet and in ESL texts giving contrived rules of usage for these two forms with most having absolutely no grounding whatsoever in the actual linguistics of the language. With some you would expect to hear that you use the present perfect on every odd Tuesday and the simple past when talking to left handed clowns.
In the example from Slate "Our research showed that younger consumers had grown up with Miracle Whip, but that it had fallen off their radar.” the usage couldn’t be more wrong and for many more reasons than those discussed above. For one thing “Our research showed…” implies a reference to a condition in the past that may not be true whereas the logical nature of research would imply that “Our research has shown…” would be the ideal form. Even the second verb phrase in the example seems wrong as well. Have grown up with in lieu of had grown up with seems the likely fit. Had grown certainly could be used because growing up by default takes place in the past and if they are currently consumers that have likely already grown up and that growing up was finished at a time in the past. But here I would lean toward using the simple past because there is no need to specify completeness, rather just information.

With a confusing set of “rules” that have little grounding in linguistic principles learners can hardly be expected to gain a productive grasp of usage and teachers can hardly be expected to effectively teach ideas that don’t make sense in the first place. So I would ask how do we develop a good set of useable rules that are fully correct and can be effectively used in teaching?
The first step to teaching is realizing that you don't know nearly enough yourself.

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2009 3:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

50 views and not a single response....that's a bit disappointing!
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 23, 2009 5:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

When learning a new skill, understanding the "rules" is practically irrelevant. Native speakers of every language typically acquire oral fluency before they receive any formal education. Even in countries where education is compulsory, youngsters are seldom exposed to the "grammar" of their own language until they have already learned to read and write. This fact clearly demonstrates that explicit comprehension of grammar is unnecessary for language acquisition (or any other skill).

It is not necessary for a bicycle rider to understand the physical laws of motion to be able to ride a bicycle. It is unnecessay for a bather to understand the chemical reactions of detergents to be able to use soap effectively. I don't understand fully the priniciples of computer languages, yet I am quite capable of using a computer program without "breaking" it.

There are many factors in language which are much more important than grammar to effective communication, including vocabulary, pronunciation, word and sentence stress, intonation, reductions and linking. Focussing on grammar displaces learner attention from these critical points, and as teachers of language, we do our students a great disservice by suggesting that grammar is more important than it is in practice.

I'm not suggesting that grammar is completely unimportant. Rather, I'm suggesting that the way we teach it is inappropriate and perhaps even wrong. It's time we relegated grammar instruction to its proper place, or at least demoted it from its apparent position of primacy.

Certainly, grammar is important to professional grammarians and theoretical linguists. It is not equally important to second-language learners.
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PostPosted: Sat May 22, 2010 6:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Our research has shown," while probably more "correct" in some parlance, preposterously stamps a "completed" seal on the findings...

When new marketing data no longer reflects the research's findings, wouldn't the present perfect seem a little, dated (for lack of a better term)? At the TUTT, why would the brand manager, of all people, have assumed that the information actually labeled reality, or was something his audience need remember? The present perfect would give too much credence to the study, and not enough leeway to the potential lurking underneath its invalidation.

It seems perfectly appropriate that the present perfect not be used in this context...

Using (and even understanding) a language is not about controlling it.
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